Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Haunting of Winchester
is a Captivating Musical

Also see Richard's reviews of The Price and River's End

Tamra Hayden, Dan Sharkey and Lizzi Jones
Craig Bohmler and Mary Bracken Phillips' musical The Haunting of Winchester is having its world premiere at the San Jose Repertory Theatre through October 2nd. The complex musical tells the haunting tale of rifle heiress Sarah Winchester and her world of ghosts, guns and guilt. Sarah was married to William Winchester, the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle, at the time of the American Civil War. He made a fortune on government contracts, and the gun helped the North win the war.

The Haunting of Winchester is basically about Sarah who, following the death of her husband, moved to the San Jose area in 1884. A Boston medium told her that she would be haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle and advised her to move west and build a great house to appease the ghosts. Sarah, an amateur architect, began with an unfurnished eight room farmhouse and turned it into an Escheresque six acre mansion with 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways (some leading nowhere), 13 bathrooms and 6 kitchens. She worked 24 hours a day and seven days a week for 38 years when death overtook her. She was a reclusive eccentric lady and no guest ever stayed in the house. Today, this mansion is a well known tourist stop in San Jose.

The Haunting of Winchester is a ghost story in which victims of gun fighter Jack Kerrigan dwell in the mansion. It is partly romantic (on the order of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), partly a ghostly farce involving the "lively" spirits, a musical thesis on the Old West, and somewhat of an anti-gun lecture. There is a long dissertation on the killing of American Indians by the United States Calvary.

The score by Craig Bohmler (Enter the Guardsman, Gunmetal Blues) is eclectic and includes knee-slapping "cowboy" melodies, romantic songs on the order of The Phantom of the Opera with even a little Assassins influence thrown into the mix. Some of the melodies in this diverse score are enticing.

The musical has many subplots, especially when the "ghosts" tell their stories of how they were killed. The main plot involves Sarah (Tamar Hayden) and her strange romance with Jack Kerrigan (Dan Sharkey), a ghost who was a gunslinger and is all dressed in black. He looks like he just came out of Once Upon a Time in the West and he has the Old West accent that you used to hear on Gunsmoke. The ghosts running about the house are victims not of the rifle but of Kerrigan's six shooter guns. Their mission is to spook Kerrigan. Mary Bracken Phillips' book becomes complex as Kerrigan is trying to spook Sarah and the ghosts are spooking Kerrigan; hence it becomes a western farce. There is even a "doorway" into heaven filled with bright white lights and chiffon curtains located stage front to represent the pearly gates. Each of the ghosts disappears through the door as the play progresses.

Director Michael Butler has assembled a great cast of New York and local actors. There is even a little old fashioned hoedown done by four of the ghosts that has been staged by choreographer Cassie Beck. Tamra Hayden (has played Cosette in Les Miserables 1,800 times on Broadway and national tours) is appealing as Sarah. She starts out as a weak, confused woman but continues to gather strength in her character by the second act. She marvelously changes from a strong woman to a "little old hunchbacked lady" on stage near the end of the musical. She has a strong, bell clear voice, especially in the touching song "Whose Thoughts People My Little World."

Dan Sharkey (New York's Captain Courageous and Prince and the Pauper) is charismatic as Jack Kerrigan, the ghost gunslinger straight out of a spaghetti western. He has a rich baritone voice that resonates through the whole theatre. Lizzie Jones (ACT's A Christmas Carol), a perky little 12-year-old, plays the ghost of Marisa who was shot accidentally by Kerrigan. She is an excellent little actress and has no preciousness about her. She also does a lot of flying about the stage, thanks to special effects expert Isaac Faust.

Each of the ghosts get their own little shinning moment in this two and one half hour production. David Curley (Memphis, Bat Boy, Hooray for What!) does a sprightly little number called "Perfect Partners" that is full of metaphors. Mark Farrell (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1776, Noel & Gertie) has his moment in the song "Worst Day Since Yesterday." He is also quite good as the ghost of Sarah's husband at the end of the musical. Cassie Beck (All My Sons, Communicating Doors) is enthralling in the role of ghost whore Elena. Jessie Quinn VanAntwerp (studying theatre at UC Irvine) as a naïve and boyish looking U.S. Calvary ghost makes a striking appearance on stage and has a great voice in "Worst Day since Yesterday." Michael Dalager is convincingly tormented as the ghost Indian scout. His solo song "Village on a Hill" is beautifully and dramatically sung. Victor Ballesteros as the famous bandito-rebel Joaquin Murieta and Ren Reynolds as sheriff are very good in their roles. Rounding out the cast is Carrie Paff who plays Sarah's cousin. She has very little to do but she is effective in the role.

Set designer William Bloodgood devised a three-story set representation of an unfinished house with many floors, staircases and balustrades. It's made of red wood and adds to the farce of the musical as actors revel in slapstick scenes or plunge through the wrong door. Lee Smith's capricious lighting, especially the many twinkling lights that shows up in the background, is whimsical. Michael Butler has helmed a tight production with some very good slapstick scenes to lighten the ghost story. Craig Bohmler conducts his own score with a six-piece orchestra that sounds very good.

The Haunting of Winchester runs through October 2nd at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Francisco, CA. Tickets can be obtained by calling 408-367-7255 or buy online at

The next production is Martin Moran's California premiere of The Tricky Part, opening on October 15 and running through November 13.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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