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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Nevermore, the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
Greasepaint Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Saturday Night Fever


Jacob Shore, Bennet Wood, Johnna Watson,
and Taylor Penn

Photo by Laura Durant
Allegedly drunk and impoverished at the time of his death at the age of 40, Edgar Allan Poe had an incredibly tortured short life filled with the deaths of numerous people close to him and a large amount of ongoing despair. While Poe's prose is well known, much about him is unknown, including the exact cause of his death. Jonathan Christenson's musical Nevermore, the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe combines fact with fiction to fill in some of the ambiguous parts of his life in an intriguing and interesting musical. It focuses mainly on Poe's troubled childhood and the influences his life experiences had on the macabre, perverse, and incredibly memorable literary characters and tales he created. Greasepaint Youth Theatre presents the local premiere, with a superb cast composed of high school and college aged kids who throw themselves into the material with sheer abandonment. The end result is intriguing, provoking, and highly entertaining.

Nevermore is presented as a memory play, in which the adult Poe, upon encountering an acting troop, looks back on his life, with the actors playing the people in his past. Poe's life was full of regret and loss, especially considering that just about every person close to him died or went insane. Providing book, music, and lyrics, Christenson attempts to show how these horrific life experiences and Poe's own inner demons, due to years of addiction, were the catalyst and inspiration for his literary works.

Atmospherically spooky and haunting, though never truly terrifying or scary, Nevermore is weird and mesmerizing, and incredibly operatic in nature. Christenson's script includes intricate rhymes in the dialogue and lyrics, much in the style of Poe's works, with a score consisting of dreamy, trance-like music. While material from Poe's actual work are mostly kept off stage, with just a few of his famous phrases incorporated into the piece, the second act includes a soaring and powerful musical adaptation of his most famous work "The Raven," which includes a few lines from his poem "Lenore," making for a highly effective, driving showstopper infused with dreamlike elements. However, as entertaining as the piece is, the ending seems a bit drawn out and doesn't quite wrap up everything that came before in a truly satisfying way.

With a superb cast, stunning creative elements, and an assured use of the entire Greasepaint stage, Peter Bish is making an auspicious directorial debut. As there is great depth to the story and almost the entire show is sung, I have to imagine this isn't an easy piece to direct, but based on the terrific opening night performance, Bish manages to make it seem like he's been directing for years.

Christenson's script paints the famous author as agonized, mournful and melancholy, and Bennet Wood beautifully portrays Poe with a poignant sense of purity and grace as well as a deep, tormented sadness that immediately creates an immensely sympathetic character. The remaining cast members play multiple characters with ease and skill. There isn't a weak member in the cast. Paige Corbin is excellent in several parts, including the woman who seeks to adopt Poe, his younger sister, and his child bride. As the girl whom Poe becomes enamored with, Johnna Watson creates a beautiful portrait of strength, mystery, and a hint of pained regret. Grant Roberts excels as Poe's estranged surrogate father, while Savannah Thompson does well as Poe's self-absorbed mother.

Jacob Shore, Mark Munoz, and Taylor Penn serve as the main narrators. All three have exceptional singing voices that shine and instill a deep sense of theatricality to the poetic cadence and tone of the sung recitative. The cast is rounded out by a sweet-natured Zac Denious and a conniving Liam Thibeault, as Poe's brother and his devious literary rival, respectively, and Matthew Villarreal, Hailey Palmer, and Lucia Williams, all of whom get a few moments to shine.

The production's design elements are highly stylized in a stunning combination of Goth and steampunk elements and the visual style of a Tim Burton film. While the show is using a recorded track that is wonderful, musical director Curtis Moeller ensures the cast navigates their way through the huge amount of sung material with ease, while providing numerous beautiful sounding harmonies. Choreographer April Rozier provides some effective dance and movement for a few key scenes. The highly stylized black and white costumes by Benjamin Bozovich are simply stunning; each costume is distinctive and incredibly creative. Marylou Montgomery's hair and make-up designs feature excellent pallid, ghostly white complexions and imaginative hair styles. The static set design from Chase Budden, Erick Beeck, and Bish uses a combination of wooden planks and metal pieces to create a period feel full of darkness and mystery, with effective props from Maureen Dias-Watson, while Stacey Walston‘s lighting complements the moody, dark tone.

As dramatized in Nevermore, Poe's life proves to be as fascinating as the many memorable characters and stories he wrote. High on style and full of substance, the only downside to the musical is a lack of a truly big message to pull everything together at the end. Still, with an excellent cast, imaginative creative elements, and sure-footed direction, Greasepaint's production is highly effective, a deep, dark, somewhat humorous and fairly satisfying presentation of this new musical.

Nevermore, the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe runs through August 5th, 2017, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre at 7020 E. 2nd Street, in Scottsdale AZ. For information and to purchase tickets call (480) 949-7529 or visit www.greasepaint.org.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Christenson
Director: Peter Bish
Choreographer: April Rozier
Musical Director: Curtis Moeller
Set Designer: Chase Budden, Erick Beeck and Peter Bish
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Costume Design: Benjamin Bozovich
Hair and Makeup Design: Marylou Montgomery
Props Designer: Maureen Dias-Watson

Cast:
Edgar Allan Poe: Bennet Wood
Player 1 (Roderick Usher): Jacob Shore
Player 2 (William Wilson): Mark Munoz
Player 3 (Arthur Gordon Pym): Matthew Villarreal
Player 4 (Marie Roget): Hailey Palmer
Player 5 (Annabel Lee): Lucia Williams
Player 6 (Lenore): Taylor Penn
Man at Bar, Undertaker 1, Asylum Attendant, The Imp, College Student, Raven 2, Alexander Shelton, Rufus Griswold: Liam Thibeault
David Poe, Jock Allan, Raven 1, Mister Bliss: Grant Roberts
Man at Bar, Undertaker 2, William Henry Leonard Poe, Mister Lee, Ancient Rotting Corpse, College Student, Raven 3, Mister Burton, Arthur Gordon Pym: Zac Denious
The Dresser, Stage Manager, Rosalie Poe, Fanny Allan, Ann Carter Lee, Sissy Clemm: Paige Corbin
Eliza Poe, Miss Duval 1, Louise Gabriella, Muddy Clemm, Writer, Mrs. Whitman: Savannah Thompson
Miss Duval 2, Asylum Attendant 1, Elmira Royster, Miss Fuller: Johnna Watson


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