Fewer songs, more story would make ‘Whisper House’ holler
By Patricia Morris Buckley
SDUN Theatre Critic
A good ghost story sends a tingle down the spine, gives listeners a sleepless night and makes for a memorable evening’s entertainment. At least that’s the idea behind “Whisper House,” a new musical from Duncan Sheik, who is best known for his score for the Tony Award-winning, groundbreaking musical “Spring Awakening.”
And there just might be a great spooky experience in this show, but it needs to honed more. A lot more. As the Old Globe has the honor of premiering the show, chances are it will get a lot of polishing before going to New York.
“Whisper House” is set in 1942 at the height of WWII. Eleven-year-old Christopher is sent to live with his old maid aunt after his father is killed in the war and his mother has a nervous breakdown. His Aunt Lilly, who runs a lighthouse on the New England coast, is cold and distant to her nephew, yet friendly with her Japanese handyman, Yasuhiro. Like many kids during WWII, Christopher has been taught to hate “the Japs” and is convinced that Yasuhiro is a spy.
He’s not the only one to be suspicious of Yasuhiro. When the lighthouse is fitted with a radio to report the sighting of any German subs, the government demands that Yasuhiro leave. It’s then that Christopher learns to respect the man and not judge him based on color or nationality.
“Whisper House” is about refusing to let fear run your life. The time period of WWII, when fear and prejudice permeated the culture, mixed in with a ghost story is a perfect vehicle for demonstrating this theme. There are two ghosts who haunt the lighthouse and interact with Christopher, the only one who can see them. They are, presumably, the ghosts of a boat that ran into the shore many decades ago, the only time his grandfather forgot to light the lighthouse beacon.
These two ghosts never talk to Christopher – they sing to him, often telling him what to do. Sheik’s music is fittingly haunting and has the feel of another time. But there’s just too much of it. The opening number, “Better to Be Dead,” is a rousing start to the show. It also sets up the story and the tension perfectly. Some songs move the action forward, but just as many do not, such as “Earthbound Starlight,” which adds nothing except stalling the action. There are 12 songs in the show, sung beautifully by David Poe and Holly Brook, but the production would be better off with half that amount.
The problem with cutting any songs is that the show is a mere 90 minutes long with no intermission. With less music, it would only be 60 to 70 minutes in length, sort of a glorified one-act. So the story would need to be beefed up, but there are enough interesting elements in it that this easily could be done.
The production gets much of its weight from the subtle and natural acting of Mare Winningham as Aunt Lilly. Last seen in San Diego in the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Bonnie & Clyde,” Winningham plays the role as stoic and unbending, a woman scarred by her past so badly that she can’t open up to anyone. Aunt Lilly also lets fear run her life and Winningham never tries to sugarcoat the character to win the audience’s favor, but in the end the character does just that.
As Yashiro, Arthur Acuna is also distanced from the audience and plays the role as a cold fish. These characters are as frosty as the chilling wind that whips around the lighthouse. Christopher is not yet as boxed off as the adults are (perhaps why he alone can see the shots?) and A.J. Foggiano brings a nice energy to the role, although it would be helpful to see why the ghosts affect his character so much.
Peter Askin’s excellent direction is finely tuned and exact. The show’s production elements are really outstanding. Michael Schweikardt’s set of a staircase winding up toward the lighthouse beacon is beautifully stripped down and evocative. Projections on the back walls provide glimpses of the water and pure-white ghostlike creatures (the band is also on stage, dressed as ghosts). Matthew Richards’ lights help us make the many transitions from reality to fantasy and back again. The costumes by Jenny Mannis look like the real clothes these characters would wear and the ghost outfits have a sense of otherworldliness (although I’m not sure why the female ghost strips down to her underwear).
There’s a lot in “Whisper House” that is memorable and captivating. However, it’s still like a block of stone waiting to be made into a sculpture. Once the excesses are chipped away, it should be more than just a good ghost story – it has the potential to be great theater.u
When: Through Feb. 21
Where: Old Globe Theatre
Info: (619) 234-5623