And that's too bad, because there is much to admire about Whisper House. The story is set in a New England lighthouse during World War II. The lighthouse is run by Miss Lilly (Mare Winningham) and the hired hand she calls Mr. Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuña). Miss Lilly is reluctantly receiving her nephew, Christopher (A. J. Foggiano), who has come to stay with his only living relative because his father has died fighting in the Pacific and his mother has been hospitalized from her grief. Christopher, too, is grieving and is anxious for a father figure in his life. One stops by, in the form of Charles the sheriff (Ted Kōch), who tells Christopher ghost stories and shares Christopher's hatred and distrust of "Japs" such as Yasuhiro.
One of the stories explains a memorial plaque that Christopher had already found on the attached to the light itself. A boat on a party cruise ran aground and sank because Christopher's grandfather had forgotten to turn on the light. On the boat was a band, including two singers who had just made plans to marry. The singers (David Poe and Holly Brook) were said to haunt the lighthouse seeking retribution for their deaths. Christopher understood this story immediately, because he had been confronted by these singers, though no one else in the household sensed their presence.
Unfortunately, nothing much happens after the story is set up. The war impedes (in the form of a Coast Guard officer, played by Kevin Hoffmann), bringing suspicion on Mr. Yasuhiro; some small-scale revelations are made, and the ghosts pursue their desire for retribution to a predictable end.
Audiences coming to Whisper House with the expectation that they are seeing a Broadway-aspiring musical will be disappointed. Mr. Sheik has called it more of a play with music, and I'd agree. But, that's a problem, because once established, the characters, outside of Christopher, remain relatively static. Even Christopher is something of a cipher, and Mr. Jarrow's book hasn't traced his psychological journey adequately. The problem has been compounded by Mr. Foggiano's replacement of Eric Brent Zutty during the show's preview week. Mr. Foggiano, a local actor who recently appeared in the Globe's production of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is an engaging performer, and he showed little hesitation with his lines and blocking. But he also hasn't had much opportunity to find his character's nuances.
Problems might also be traced to the fact that the music was finished as a concept album before the book was constructed. The songs tell the story in themselves, and the book fills in the details. Its solution is to have the ghosts do almost all of the singing, as if they are caught in a limbo they entered when their ship sank. Mr. Poe and Ms. Brook are appealing singers who blend well together, but Mr. Poe's diction is far clearer (and understanding the lyrics is crucial). The book also could have filled in the details in a more consistent and revealing manner. For example, despite the characters addressing many racist remarks to Mr. Yasuhiro, they react impassively when they learn that he has fallen in love with a white woman.
Peter Askin's production sets an appropriately ghostly tone, and he draws effective performances from his actors. Ms. Winningham, Mr. Acuña, and Mr. Koch do their best with what they have been given, though Mr. Hoffmann comes across as more shrill than is necessary. The other production elements, particularly Aaron Rhyne's other-worldly projection design, are supportive but not distinguished. I longed for the discipline that Michael Mayer provided in his direction for Spring Awakening, particularly in staging “Take a Bow,” the curtain-call number that Mr. Sheik composed to wrap things up.
Despite these many reservations, I enjoyed the show. As I overheard more than one conversation in which an audience member was claiming to have seen it more than once in its ten days of performances, I suspect that it will develop its passionate devotees.
The Old Globe presents Whisper House through February 21, 2010 at the Old Globe Theatre, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage. Tickets ($36 - $89) available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE or visiting The Old Globe website.Music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. Directed by Peter Askin with Jason Hart as musical director and Wesley Fata as dance directory. Scenic design by Michael Schweikardt, costume design by Jenny Mannis, lighting design by Matthew Richards, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, and projection design by Aaron Rhyne.
With David Poe and Holly Brook (Ghosts), Mare Winningham (Lilly), Arthur Acuña (Yasuhiro), A. J. Foggiano (Christopher), Ted Kōch (Charles, the Sheriff), and Kevin Hoffmann (Lieutenant Rando).