Review: Whisper House is an intimate musical ghost story
Depending on your propensity to believe in the supernatural, a ghost could be a metaphor for lingering guilt or a real spirit occupying the darkness of your home. But when that thing ruins your sleep, does it matter if it’s real? Composer Duncan Sheik (spring awakening) and librettist Kyle Jarrow (Sponge Bob SquarePants) cleverly leave this question up for debate in their haunting chamber musical house of whispers, which is finally making its New York debut after premiering at the Old Globe in San Diego over a decade ago (Sheik and Jarrow engineered the project, which shares a name with Sheik’s 2009 studio album, featuring Keith Powell). Playing under the Civilians banner, the show marks the grand reopening of theaters 59E59, which was beginning to look like a ghost location as it approached the two-year mark without live performances.
Of course, the performance multiplex isn’t nearly as arresting as Alexander Dodge’s spooky, ever-changing backdrop, which evocatively suggests the creaking headlight in which house of whispers takes place. Set in 1942 on the coast of Maine, it’s about 12-year-old Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus), who is sent to live with his Aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis) following the death of his father and the mental collapse of his mother. Lily operates the lighthouse with her hired hand, Mr. Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi). When the local sheriff (Jeb Brown) reports that German U-boats have been sighted in nearby waters, war in the distance suddenly seems very near. Old bigotry and new paranoia combine to cast a shadow of suspicion over the Japanese man living in a tower overlooking the east coast.
Framing the story and directing it musically are two nihilistic ghosts (Molly Hager and Alex Boniello) who repeatedly inform us that everyone in this story would be better off dead. Hager and Boniello combine musical virtuosity with an extremely unsettling stage presence (helped greatly by Linda Cho’s washed-out period costume design). Like the White Stripes, we spend an awkward time wondering if they’re siblings or lovers (no spoilers here). And like any great musical duo, they sell out every number of Sheik and Jarrow’s whimsical and seductive score (the two authors collaborated on the lyrics).
Sheik and Jarrow sometimes trade consistency for gothic atmospheres, like in “The Ballad of Solomon Snell,” which attempts to unpack significant exposition while delivering a totally unrelated story, and which sent me running for the script as soon as the curtain has fallen.
Thankfully, Steve Cosson’s lucid direction keeps the story on track and keeps us wanting more, like campers around a fire. Lighting designers Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter create a world of shadows for this dark New England setting. Sound designer Ken Travis not only crafts an impeccable sonic balance (a difficult thing to do when the orchestra is high on the side of the house), but it simulates the boom of a realistic naval skirmish. It also creates the eerie whispers that haunt our protagonists.
Excellent performance in all areas enriches the universe of house of whispers. Mathis is formidable as Lily, with a diction as invigorating as a gust of wind off Penobscot Bay. Yaegashi gives a quietly powerful portrait of a stranger (both in the US and in Japan) who has settled into a new home and mostly wants to be left alone to live his life. For these people, moments of national hysteria are never pleasant.
house of whispers manages to combine a beautiful musical comedy, a satisfying ghost story, and a cautionary tale about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of “public safety” (a message that is unfortunately still just as relevant). Don’t let this show be one of those theatrical ghosts you wish you had seen when you had the chance.