Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Whisper House premiered in 2010 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and has yet to have a major New York production. The show is part historical fiction and part ghost story. Set in a Maine lighthouse during World War II, it tells of the story of a boy, Christopher, whose father died in the war, and whose mother is now in an asylum. He goes to live with his Aunt Lily and her Japanese caretaker Yasuhiro in a lighthouse. Things turn odd and more intense as two ghosts from a nearby shipwrecked yacht haunt the lighthouse and its inhabitants. A new law banning Japanese immigrants leads to the local sheriff bringing further chaos to the situation.
The show features music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), book by Kyle Jarrow (SpongeBob SquarePants), and lyrics by both. It is stylistically similar to Spring Awakening, though not at the same quality level of that show overall. The music features emotional, pulsating melodies and rhythms, though only the opening number "Better Off Dead" is as memorable as any of Sheik's more famous theater score's better tunes. The lyrics tend to be more poetic and loosely connected to the plot rather than specifically describing either the story or characters, also similar to Spring Awakening. In addition, the score is very much the same musically, except for the song "The Tale of Solomon Snell", which seems unnecessary to the plot and feels as though it might have been included only to provide variation within the score. The story is an intriguing one, using a recurring theme about the power of secrets to weave an eerie tale of specters into a wartime social drama, but the lack of clear storytelling within the songs lets it down somewhat.
Despite some weaknesses in the writing, Know Theatre provides a solid presentation of the material. Director Daniel Winters deftly matches the show's intended tone in his blocking and shaping of the performances, and includes some elements similar to those in Spring Awakening that work well, such as the ghosts accompanying themselves on guitar for much of the show and the inclusion of anachronistic microphones at times. He also employs a creative effect of crashing waves using plastic bags. Music director Erin McCamley has prepared the vocalists well (there are some lovely harmonies) and the nine-piece band sounds great. The limited choreography by Darnell Pierre Benjamin is appropriate.
As the two ghosts, Cary Davenport and Erin Ward do well taking on the bulk of the singing, and embody the vengeful ghosts of two reluctant lovers who died before professing their love for each other. The pair never touch until the very end and manage to be manipulative, but not menacing. Young Andrew Ramos is praiseworthy as Christopher, providing the necessary depth and unspoken angst of a boy both separated from his home and being haunted by ghosts. Kelly Mengelkoch's acting is impressive as Aunt Lily, and Adam Tran provides a tender and aptly restrained portrayal of Yasuhiro. Brant Russell supplies some humor and some fun rock vocals as Sheriff Charles.
Andrew Hungerford's lighting and scenic design are well integrated, using lights behind frosted glass panels for a unique ghost effect. His multi-tiered wood panel and planked unit set makes the performance space seem larger than it is. The costumes by Noelle Johnson are well-suited to the period.
Whisper House isn't a Broadway-level musical, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing. Know Theatre typically mounts shows you won't see elsewhere, and this musical, though not perfect, offers some intriguing elements and opportunities for theatergoers at an affordable price.
Whisper House, through August 19, 2018, at Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St, Cincinnati OH. Visit www.knowtheatre.com for additional information or to purchase tickets.