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Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe
It seems Wayne Gretzky's not the only good thing to come to New York out of Alberta. Written, composed, and directed by Jonathan Christenson, Nevermore, The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poeat New World Stages, is bursting with macabre charm. The musical play imagines the tortuous journey of the American literary giant from birth to grave, blending fact with fiction and wit with whimsy.
Christenson is the Artistic Director of Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre, where the work was created in 2009, subsequently touring extensively and landing in New York at the New Victory Theatre in 2010. Since then the show has been rejiggered, with songs added and the script revised. Its current incarnation is nothing short of beguiling.
The premise ofNevermore is simple if slightly strained. Travelling by boat from Richmond to New York, Poe meets a six-member acting troupe who, at his request, act out the story of his life. Each of them takes on multiple roles, enacting a mock tale of woe to rival Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The play takes place on an almost bare stage. The only adornment is metal grillwork enhanced by a blue background, creating squared-off arches, under each of which a troupe member is positioned at the top of the show.
But if the set is spare, the costumes are anything but. Outlandish and almost entirely in black and white, they evoke the nineteenth century without necessarily striving for strict historical accuracy. Ruffles abound. Women frequently wear hoop skirts, sometimes actual but more often in skeletal form so you can see the less flamboyant skirt or dress underneath.
Men's hair is styled to point upward, almost pure Munchkin, with a little Mohawk thrown in for good measure. Women's hair is less noticeable because of the hats, often huge and always silly, they wear. The exception is Poe's first love, Elmira, whose tonsorial splendor suggests a snakeless Medusa.
Production designer Bretta Gerecke's lighting skillfully creates discrete playing areas by varying brightness, colors, placement, and degrees of illumination. Set and costumes are also under Gerecke's aegis.
Nevermore is not a typical musical. Music and speech are interwoven throughout with little differentiation. It's driven by third party narrative, delivered by a rotation of troupe members and illustrated by them, assuming multiple roles.
So, we are both told and see that Edgar's (Scott Shpeley) mother (Lindsie Van Winkle) is a vain, self-involved actress. She gives birth to Edgar during intermission at a theater performance. She loves her children: Edgar, his brother Henry (Gaelan Beatty), and sister Rosalie (Beth Graham). But she loves her art more. Her neglectful parenting is complemented by that of Edgar's alcoholic father, who advises his son, “Good things don't come to those who wait,” which becomes Edgar's mantra. Such pessimism proves to be warranted.
Poe's mother dies when he is still a young boy, and he is shipped off to live with the Allans. Fanny Allan (Beth Graham) dotes on him, but she is committed to an insane asylum where she takes her own life. Her husband Jock (Garett Ross) runs hot and cold, but eventually settles on cold, leaving a college-age Edgar penniless out in the street.
Other catastrophes include Elmira's marriage to another and the deaths of his brother and his wife. All is tinged with dark humor and served with a knowing wink. The costumes constantly remind us nothing is to be taken too seriously. Both songs and dialogue are in rhyming couplets, another token of the show's artificiality.
Christenson's score is unique and intriguing. Much of it is underscores third party storytelling and so is confined to a narrow range. But it's surprisingly catchy, a hyped-up, rock-infected dirge. There are breakout numbers in the pop vein as well. Poe's exultant anthem upon discovering that poetry is his salvation is a shining example.
In addition to having a clear, soaring voice Shpeley makes an excellent Poe, capturing his resignation, fear, bewilderment, and determination. The ensemble matches his virtuosity, with Graham's Fanny especially standing out. Laura Krewski's subtle choreography incorporates balletic and modern dance poses into simple orchestrated movement.
The ravens that haunt Poe near the end of the play resemble the lizards in Broadway's Enron a few seasons back, but are even tackier, a small flaw in an otherwise classy production. Not for the staid traditionalist, Nevermore is an exciting and decidedly different entertainment.
©Copyright 2015, Elyse Sommer.
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