Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Ghost Quartet
Theatre Elision
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of O My God!, Before You Were Alive, Journey's End


Quinn Shadko and Christine Wade
Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision
Theatre Elision has moved into a home of their own, the Elision Playhouse, located in Crystal, a western suburb. It is a cozy accommodating space, ideal for Elision's brand of chamber musicals and song cycles. I made my first visit there for their recent re-staging of Ghost Quartet, a song cycle by Dave Malloy, best known as the creator of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1814. This is the third time Theatre Elision has mounted Ghost Quartet, and along the way they have acquired some ardent followers, with some of those in the audience far more familiar with the piece than I.

Lack of familiarity was no impediment to thoroughly enjoying Ghost Quartet, though it may have kept me from fulling grasping what the work is about. Fortunately, I was reassured by the program notes cautioning first timers "to not try to understand what is going on (because it will make little sense)." Thus disarmed, I let the show wash over me, rather than struggling to piece together a coherent narrative. I was thus made airborne by the haunting melodies, beautifully toned voices, enigmatic blending of all sorts of instruments, and the sensuous and evocative imagery conjured by Malloy's lyrics. I am not prone to mysticism, but this piece drew me willingly into a realm in which centuries co-exist, individuals have multiples lives, and to be haunted is as natural as to breathe.

The narrative winds around an enigmatic fable that encompasses a brutal subway accident, an astronomer in a treehouse, a photographer with a smashed camera, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," a talking bear who is either enchanted or merely a swindler, the jazz riffs of Thelonious Monk, Scheherazade and the Arabian nights, and sisters whose complex relationship passes over epochs. Whiskey also has an important presence in the tale, and serves as a portal for (voluntary) audience participation.

At Theatre Elision, themes came and went as the songs pour forth. At one point, the thought that we need to let go of what was past in order to move on into the future caught my attention, at another, that we cannot ignore the psychic inheritance of our forebears—conflicting notions that both seem to emanate from the work. In any case, they are as likely to reflect things circling around in my own mind as anything intended by those who created Ghost Quartet.

The score totters between folk, country and emo-rock, with a strong swath of jazz—remember Thelonious Monk—and other musical genres peeking in. Kellen McMillan, Quinn Shadko, Tristen Sima and Christine Wade all performed with gusto and possess gorgeous voices. While each was a pleasure to hear individually, they especially soared in four-part harmonies, as in "Subway,", "Four Friends," "Prayer," and the haunting finale, "The Wind and Rain."

In addition to exquisite vocals, the magic in the music came from its diverse instrumentation. The singers switched on and off on keyboard, guitar, banjo, vibraphone, mandolin, ukulele, violin, tambourine, mbira, varied types of drums, home-spun percussion such as a washboard, and instruments I couldn't name—along with the constant keyboard playing by Harrison Wade, who was also the production's excellent music director.

Buckets of simple percussion are pulled forth from around the stage—which was a pinwheel of platforms in the center of the room—and given out to audience members who seemed to relish the opportunity to take an active part in the occasion, and which brought forth one of the best conceived endings of any musical I have ever attended—honest!

Being an in-the-round staging, it was inevitable that at times actors had their backs to part of the audience, but they shifted positions often enough to ensure that no one missed out very much or for very long. Stage lighting was fairly simple, but nonetheless worked beautifully to bathe the stage in different shades, in clear white light, and for a short time, in total darkness. The sound system was less satisfactory. The keyboard I was sitting close to overpowered other instruments, even the other keyboard diagonally across the stage, as well as the voices across the stage. This was the only blemish on a production that otherwise felt, looked, and sounded exactly right.

To be frank, works like Ghost Quartet are not everyone's cups of tea. If you are willing to stretch your boundaries a bit, I encourage you to try Ghost Quartet—hopefully Theatre Elision will bring it back for its faithful followers and to entice new audiences next year and beyond. Or try one of the other offerings from Theatre Elision in their current season. You won't get the razzle dazzle of a 42nd Street or Chicago, or the grand staging of Phantom or Les Misérables. But you will be presented with an elegant musical program that draws you in rather than bowls you over, and invites you to reflect upon and create your own associations with the artistry on stage.

Ghost Quartet, ran from October 25, 2019, through October 31, 2019, at Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. For information, visit www.elisionproductions.com.

Book, Music and Lyrics: Dave Malloy; Director and Designer: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director: Harrison Wade; Vocal Director: Christine Wade: Sound Manager: Krin McMillen; Stage Manager: Z Makila

Cast: Kellen McMillan, Quinn Shadko, Tristen Sima, Christine Wade, Harrison Wade.


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