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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Whisper House


With Additional Thoughts by New York to San Diego Transplanted Critic Jenny Sandman
Things are broke and way past mending.
Don't look now, the world is ending
— "You've Really Gone and Done it Now."
Whisper House
David Poe and Holly Brooks
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Every entity, living or deceased, youthful or wizened, American or alien is better off dead. So croon a pair of rockin' ghosts as Whisper House,the gloomy and spooky new musical by Duncan Sheik gets underway. Given that our singers are themselves specters, they might be a little biased.

A kind of coming-of-age tale set at a haunted lighthouse during World War II, Whisper House is not quite as relentlessly misery-inducing as Sheik's first musical, Spring Awakening. It also lacks Awakening's gas-meets-match kineticism and charisma. Those hormonal German prep schoolers may have been spiraling into oblivion, but they were going down hard. There was a kind of nihilistic thrill at realizing you were, as Melchior Gabor discovered , "Totally F**ked." With Whisper House Sheik writes his own lyrics and is working with a different librettist (Kyle Jarrow, also a co-lyricist), and a new director in Peter Askin.

The piece is plenty moody and atmospheric and, in its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, occasionally even a bit fright inducing. Visuals can go a long way when you've got a creepy enough set, eerie booms and crashes (courtesy of Dan Moses Schreier's sound design) and enough dry ice to fog the place down.

Narratively speaking, Jarrow's book is wafer thin. Our 11 year old hero makes his quickie journey into adulthood while his spinster aunt is learning to let her dried-out heart throb with love and compassion in the fewer than 90 minutes Askin takes to bring the whole thing home. And as we're wondering whether the aforementioned kid and auntie will survive the War and their own demons, more entertainment-minded audience members might well be saying, "Fine, fine, but let's get back to those ghosts striking up their wraithlike band." But the two ghosts, you see, do the only singing and what they sing largely represents the inner feelings of young Christopher (A.J. Foggiano) who has been sent to live at the Maine lighthouse operated by his aunt Lily (Mare Winningham). Christopher's father, a fighter pilot, has been killed in action, and the boy's mom has suffered a breakdown. Mom has promised to send for Christopher by telegram in a month or so, and, from Christopher's perspective, that cable can't come too soon.

Lilly, a practical but emotionless woman, has little or no experience with kids. She's the last choice to rear a boy, and she knows it. Christopher, meanwhile, believes her Japanese houseman Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna) might be an enemy spy, so he does some snooping of his own. With talk of U-boats being spotted in nearby waters, the local sheriff (Ted Koch) puts Lilly on alert that she may have to douse the light and send Yasuhiro away (potentially to an internment camp). Lilly scoffs that her worker is no threat. As for the lighthouse, "It's dangerous to put out the light." Indeed it is. The last time that happened, a yacht carrying revelers from a masquerade ball hit the rocks. And now the lighthouse has ghosts.

Ashen faced and dressed in formal wear, our two ghosts resemble zombies or vampires more than spirits. They roam up and down the staircases and ladders of Michael Schweikardt's tri level set, playing instruments, occasionally oversalting Lilly's oatmeal and leading (or misleading) Christopher into hasty decisions. David Poe is gaunt and terrifying, suggesting a sneering malevolence even though his ghostly motives seem largely benign. The very presence of Holly Brook, with her fishnets and corset, should be enough to send Christopher hurtling into puberty.

Both performers cut arresting figures, and they handle Sheik's moody melodies (Brook is the featured female singer on Sheik's Whisper House concept CD). The heavy guitar strains and bass line should resonate with people who appreciated both Sheik's Spring Awakening score and with fans of his pop output. A creepy number like "The Tale of Solomon Snell" finds a place here as does the beautiful ballad "Earthbound Starlight."

Winningham's Miss Lilly and Acuna's Yasuhiro both deliver appropriate doses of dignity and strength in the midst of what would be a a pretty wretched situation for their characters. It seems strange that Winningham, a former Brat-Packer, has reached the age where she's playing mothers of grown children (as she did in La Jolla Playhouse's Bonnie & Clyde). She doesn't overplay Lilly's iciness nor does she over-saccharine the inevitable coming together of aunt and boy. ThoughWhisper House doesn't call on her to sing, Winningham is, herself, a recording artist and skilled singer.

Foggiano's is another credible performance. In his hands, Christopher is neither too brash nor too grown up. A bit more fear at the bumps in the night (to say nothing of aircraft fire) might be in order. The central conceit of Jarrow's script, of course, suggests that the world is a terrifying place whether you're out on a vulnerable beach or in the, ahem!, safe haven of a lighthouse. When once helpful ghosts wear out their usefulness, you may simply have to send them away and look to your own devices to get through. In other words, Christopher picked a devil of a time to have to grow up. All of this is, as noted, rather superficially played, but Poe and Brook's ghosts and the music of Duncan Sheik, make this evening at the very least an entertaining one.

Whisper House
Music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik
Book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow Directed by Peter Askin
Cast: David Poe (Ghost), Holly Brook (Ghost), Mare WInningham (Lilly), Arthur Acuna (Yasuhiro), A.J. Foggiano (Christopher), Ted Koch (Charles, the Sheriff), Kevin Hoffmann (Lieutenant Rando)
Stage Manager: Richard Costabile
Set Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Musical Director/Keyboards: Jason Hart
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
Song List: Better to Be Dead, We're Here to Tell You,(Part 1), We're Here to Tell You (Part 2), And Now We Sing, The Tale of Solomon Snell, Earthbound Starlight, Play Your Part, You've Really Gone and Done it Now, How it Feels, I Don't Believe in You, Better to be Dead, Take a Bow.
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. (619) 234-5623, www.Theoldglobe.org
From Jan. 13 to Feb. 21
Tue-Sat. @ 8pm, Sat. @ 2 pm., Sun @ 2 pm and 7 pm.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on Jan. 22nd performance.

Additional Thoughtsby Jenny Sandman
Almost five months ago, I moved myself from New York to San Diego. During my decade in New York, I saw (and reviewed) thousands of plays. In my heyday I was reviewing three or four plays a week, and thatís not counting the ones I saw that I wasnít reviewing. Now that I'm settled in I'm starting to explore the California theater scene.

Last night I went to my first play in San Diego at the Old Globe: Duncan Sheikís Whisper House. This being the Duncan Sheik, of Spring Awakening fame, it was a bit strange to be watching off-Broadway type theater so far off-Broadway. And quite different.

In New York, I saw all manner of plays and playhouses. I viewed shows on Broadway and at BAM, packed to the gills; I sat in leaky basements in the East Village where I was one of three audience members. Iíve seen plays in cars (yes, in cars), in churches, in the subway, in apartments, in parks, in the street, and in innumerable basements. More often than not, I was watching theater in a repurposed space. Iíve sat on folding chairs, backless benches, church pews, boxes, floor mats, and the grass. Comfortable seating was a luxury, as was a coat check. Occasionally there was a folding table set up where I could purchase $6 beer or box wine.

Now, I didnít always live in New York. Iíve seen plenty of community and regional theatre, so itís not like the concept of free parking at the theater is completely unheard-of. But after my years in New York it's quite a novelty to discover that . The Old Globe has free parking. Lots of it. And a valet. It was nice to drive to the theater without worrying about missing plays because of subway snafus (It happened). The Old Globe also has a year-round outdoor pub. Let me just restate thatóyear-round. Outdoors.

As for the theaters. . . cushy seats and wide aisles with no chance for my knees to hit the back of the seat in front of me. Best of all, I didnít have to swing back out into the aisle and perform a couple of advanced yoga moves in order to cross my legs.

The last play I saw in New York was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, an incredibly subversive and hilarious musical. It played at a black box space about the size of three corner offices. Not one audience member was over 40, and there couldnít have been seating for more than 50 people, tops. If I remember correctly, it was about 45 degrees outside.

Fast forward several months to San Diego, 70 degree weather and Whisper House. It's also a subversive musical, by a guy who made his name in New York. But it's debut is in an enormous, and beautifuld 600 seat venue. My seat had a cushion, and ample leg room. Granted, when I saw Spring Awakening on Broadway, the weather was lovely and it turns out that Duncan Sheik plays well on both coasts. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

It helped that I was viewing a familiar name. It's clear that Duncan Sheik is becoming a force to be reckoned with and while Whisper House is stylistically very different from Spring Awakening, it has Sheik's s characteristic musical insouciance.

While my new colleague Evan Henerson wasnít thrilled with the show, it was perfect for my own personal re-entry into the theater world. I agree with much of Evan's review. The book IS pretty thinóbut atmospherically, I found the evening was exceptional. The playís soundtrack is very nearly a cross between The Killers and a moody James Bond theme song. The lighting and fog usage is eerie and mournful without being overwrought. The perfomances were excellent and the set architecturally interesting. I was pleased to see that the audience was happily mixed, unlike New York were older people predominate at the big Broadway shows and the Off and Off-Off Broadway theaters I frequented tended to be strictly well under forty.

Now that Iíve settled in, Iím looking forward to checking out the entire Southern California theatre scene Stay tuned!

—original review by
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