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A CurtainUpSan Francisco Bay Area Review
The Haunting of Winchester, a Musical Play
For their 25th Anniversary season, San Jose Repertory Theatre has chosen the city's best known landmark and most sympathetic citizen to celebrate with the world premiere of a musical play that's both historical and fanciful. Daring to defy a charge of provincialism, Sarah Winchester and her famous San Jose haunted house were selected by Bay Area composer/musician Craig Bohmler and playwright/ Mary Bracken Phillips as their subject.
Commissioned by Artistic Director Timothy Near, and five years in the making, The Haunting of Winchester is in keeping with the Theatre company's stated mission to reflect the Silicon Valley community. Interestingly, its not only a ghost story, but a love story that takes place at the so-called Winchester Mystery House--perhaps the most famous haunted house in America and a San Jose landmark visited by millions.
As widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to the famous gun manufacturing fortune, Sarah (Tamra Hayden) has become the undeserving subject of a family curse that led her to escape the East Coast and come to California and to the building of the "Winchester Mystery House." The play starts with a boom . . . a threatening storm that brings forth a band of ghosts, just as the widowed Winchester Rifle heiress is moving into the original eight room Victorian house in San Jose. We first meet a little girl ghost, Marisa, perfectly played by 12-year-old Lizzi Jones who's more angel than spirit and the only one who can fly. Her reason for being there is never really explained, so I chose to envision her as Widow Winchester's long lost, deceased child come to protect her.
Next to arrive is a singing gunfighter ghost, Jack Kerrigan-killed in an unfair match with a Winchester rifle. Kerrigan is looking to get even with William Wirt Winchester. With Winchester deceased, Kerrigan opts to torment and, if necessary, to kill the Widow Winchester leading. This leads angelic Marisa to tell big bad Kerrigan "You got evil written all over you!"
Nobody has ever figured out exactly why Sarah Winchester left the comfort of friends in New Haven in 1884 for the wilds of California or why she began the never ending remodeling that occupied an army of carpenters until her death 38 years later. The rambling mansion of 160 rooms she created and may have actually designed remains an architectural, if quirky, marvel. Local legend has it that the lonely widow went on her building spree to escape the multitudinous ghosts created by the murderous force of the mighty Winchester repeater rifle.
The house itself is a character in set designer William Bloodgood's fanciful representation of its multiple floors, staircases and doors that go nowhere, highlighted by Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting. Tamra Hayden, who has played Cosette in Les MisÚrables on Broadway, is a sweet, shy and , distant Sarah Winchester. After a slow start, Hayden brings Sarah to life through her full, lovely singing voice. Her character grows stronger and more appealing as she encounters the ghosts--especially Gunslinger Kerrigan. Through her encounters with Kerrigan,Hayden develops from shy to feisty to loving .
In the play, the other ghosts haunting the mansion, have no grievance with Mrs. Winchester. They have followed Kerrigan there, seeking retribution for their deaths by his fast gun. But from the start the musical's focus is on the Old West gunslinger. Tall and imposing, decked out in long black overcoat and broad-brimmed hat, Broadway veteran Dan Sharkey's Kerrigan is the play's most sharply defined figure. At first angry and defiant, the tough character gradually warms to the sweetly shy widow--somehow carrying off affection turning to love by the play's end. This was the only plot angle that I resisted and yet Sharkey somehow brings it off with his richly romantic baritone voice.
The other ghosts, all with fine voices and acting skills represent a cross-section of the kind of characters who built the West. There's the hardened hooker (Cassie Beck, who also did the choreography), the crooked Banker (Mark Farrell), an innocent John Wayne style US Cavalry Trooper (Jesse Quinn VanAntwerp), a tormented Indian Scout (Michael Dalager), the tough Sheriff (Ren Reynolds), the reckless Deputy (David Curley, who also doubles as an architect) and the notorious Mexican bandit Joaquin Murieta (amusingly played by Victor Ballesteros). There are several beautiful melodies sung by Sarah and Kerrigan, the ghosts get the best songs -- lively, tuneful cowboy spoofs with Phillips's clever lyrics.
Director Michael Butler amuses us with the ghosts slapstick scenes, with the ghosts getting lost in the many rooms, banging against the ceiling at the top of a staircase or falling when walking through the wrong door. They fall because they're "heavy souls", as angelic Marisa explains.
Act Two is especially lively, with the ghosts singing their stories. The love story between Kerrigan and Sarah builds quite believably, through the power of Sharkey and Hayden's performances, especially in their moving love duet "A Peak in Wyoming," in which Phillips's always fine lyrics approach sheer poetry.
Although I found the ending drawn out by the unnecessary appearance of Sarah's deceased husband (he is left behind in an unsatisfying limbo), the show was altogether entertaining, romantic, and, yes, thought-provoking.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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