Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
To this new San Francisco series comes a recent East Coast hit, Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy, performed by him and the original cast members: Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Brent Arnold. The 90-minute song cycle is an intermingling of quirky, eerie, captivating stories covering several centuries that touch on such diverse themes as family and love, jealousy and revenge, dreams and death ... and whiskey. Images of ghosts float throughout, as do occurrences of stars, a camera, a bear, and a violin made of a woman's breastbone. Sources for the stories, their poetic words, and haunting images come from over twenty diverse authors ranging from Grimms to Poe to Stephen Sondheim to Carl Sagan, James Joyce, and Stephen King, and from traditions of Japanese Noh drama, English murder ballads, and tales of Arabia.
Four main stories circle in and out of sisters in love with the same man, of a family of four where the teenage daughter loses a child to kidnapping, of a murder at a subway stop, and of a woman who stays alive by continuing to tell stories. The four actors shift and change in roles and stories as songs come and go, all the time playing an amazing diversity of instruments that speak to the many musical genres and regional sounds required (cello, dulcimer, Celtic harp, ukulele, keyboards of various types, drums and percussion of small and large proportions, among others). We hear touches of toe-tapping gospel, finger-snapping honky-tonk, soul-touching jazz, and mournful ballads, as well as country twangs, Irish jig, Eastern European klezmer, and Middle Eastern chants. While not every story can be followed exactly, and while some songs stand more on their own than connected to an ongoing tale, the total flow is mesmerizing, engaging, and immensely enjoyable.
An exposé could be written on each of the intriguing, beguiling songs of the twenty-two presented as four sides of two imaginary CDs. Words jump out and remain embedded in the mind and soul, apart from the context of their original story. In the opening "I Don't Know," one reflection is worthy of an essay ... or at least a conversation over a drink at the bar:
In a later "Hero," wonderful images come to mind when we hear, "I want to dance ... I want to look at the stars ... I want to take a picture at the end of the world." In the same song, one of most powerful poems of the evening emerges in:
I am not a hero,
Every song has its singularly memorable phrase or image while it also links stories and themes of the entire evening. Often, there is also a tongue-in-cheek, a-wink-to-the-audience, as in "The Astronomer" where in gospel-like glory, out comes "I don't believe in ghosts, but I like to sing ... But I don't practice enough." During a saloon-like "Four Friends" where buddies such as Maker's Mark and Jameson are reveled ("Poor Jameson, you righteous young man" ... "Poor Maker's Mark, you sweet little temptress, you"), the audience gets into the act after bottles of Jack Daniels whisky circulate, soon resulting in folks swaying along to the notes drifting over and around them.
Each of the four performers is outstanding in musicianship, both in voice and in instrument. All show a wide range of singing abilities as they solo, sing in duets, and excel as a quartet of close harmonies. Voices shriek in horror, coo in childlike sweetness, cry in desperation, moan in despair, and sparkle in fun and fantasy. What is interesting and surely purposeful, neither the program nor the CD of Ghost Quartet acknowledges who sings what songs. This is truly a group effort, a combined tour de force. Each of these performers is brilliant alone, but all require as a quartet the others to shine in full display.
I would be remiss in not giving a special shout-out to director Annie Tippe and designer Christopher Bowser. The pace, sequence, movement, and flow of the song cycle are flawless and contribute to the overall unity of such diverse songs and stories. The Curran comes to life in the lighting choices (and use of complete darkness) and the choice and placement of props among the audience. And the decisions of when and how to bring the audience into the music itself create a sense of community and leave us in the closing with a tear-producing sense of connection to what we have heard and have helped ourselves effect.
Congratulations to Carole Shorenstein and to the cast of Ghost Quartet. Long live "Curran: Under Construction."
Ghost Quartet continues at the Curran, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco as part of "Curran: Under Construction" through October 31, 2015. For more information and tickets, visit sfcurran.com or call 415-358-1220.