The idea behind Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s new musical has potential: What if only certain characters sing? And what if they’re ghosts haunting a lighthouse during World War II? The people in the “real world” live heightened lives (German U-Boats spotted off the Maine coast), while the ghosts’ songs lace the proceedings with a spectral veneer.
But the only haunting aspect of The Whisper House is why the Old Globe produced it. The answer: Duncan Sheik wrote the angry, fearless songs for Spring Awakening. His ten numbers for House sound pretty much the same — a mix of U2 and Mark Knopfler doing salty dog shanties — and the lyrics (by Sheik and Kyle Jarrow) cram in every cliché about death but without menace. “It’s good to be a ghost,” one sings, “but even better to be dead.” What could be a Goth musical ends up a dismal hybrid with each side tripping over the other’s toes.
For Spring Awakening, Sheik had Franz Wedekind’s remarkable story about repressed youth to work with. The book for House wouldn’t pass Playwriting 1A. Young Christopher’s father was shot down in air combat. His mother went mad. So the boy goes to live with his Aunt Lilly. In the show’s only nuance (if you don’t count that she salts her oatmeal), Lilly has no use for children. She runs a lighthouse near where a yacht sank in 1912. Two lovers and a seven-piece band drowned. The lovers need to kill someone so they can be released, or something like that; the fuzzy miking system obscures their mandate.
Young boy, ghosts, lighthouse — guess where the climactic scene takes place (the only missing element: strobed lightning). Can life reaffirm triumph over death? Jarrow peoples a stock situation with stock characters. The only unpredictable moment (thanks to smartly underplayed performances by Mare Winningham and Arthur Acuña): when Yasuhiro, who works for Lilly, declares his true intentions.
And the ghosts? They aren’t tormented at all. They’re rock stars. David Poe and Holly Brook have strong voices. But when they sing, a concert breaks out. Poe tilts toward a floor mike — à la Bono — and croons to the audience, with Brook accompanying. The songs fracture the fourth wall, and the singers drop character. Instead of menacing spirits desperate to escape their fate, they’re cool dudes, so above it all you wonder why they haven’t figured a way out already.
The singers, director, and authors should spend a sundown at the Whaley House or the northeasternmost room at the Casa de Estudillo in Old Town. They may not see actual ghosts, but as the sun creeps down the walls, they’ll get a better visual sense of their subject from two alleged habitats.
In musicals, songs not only express inner feelings and develop the narrative but also reveal backstory. House’s don’t. As a result, the nonsinging characters have no depth, and the spoken scenes fall flat with exposition. People sit around the kitchen table and recall the past. Whatever energy the songs generate evaporates during these explanation-fests.
Except for the band that drowned — seven musicians behind a scrim in top hats with black circles around their eyes — the production values don’t help. Director Peter Askin provides few mystical touches, and the set, an iron staircase spiraling up to an oval lamp, requires too much excessive movement from locale to locale to be useful.
The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle held its annual awards ceremony last Monday. Craig Noel Award winners for 2009:
Special Awards: DJ Sullivan, Darko Tresnjak
Resident Musical: 42nd Street, Moonlight Stage Productions
New Musical: Bonnie and Clyde, La Jolla Playhouse
Special Theatrical Event: Looking for an Echo, Ira Aldridge Players
Direction of a Musical: Jeff Calhoun, Bonnie and Clyde, La Jolla Playhouse
Musical Direction: John McDaniel, Bonnie and Clyde, La Jolla Playhouse; Mark Danisovszky, The Threepenny Opera, San Diego Rep
Lead Performance in a Musical, Female: Colleen Kollar, Bed & Sofa, Cygnet Theatre; Laura Osnes, Bonnie and Clyde, La Jolla Playhouse
Lead Performance in a Musical, Male: Obba Babatunde, Sammy, Old Globe Theatre
Featured Performance in a Musical, Female: Sara Chase, First Wives Club, Old Globe Theatre; Melissa van der Schyff, Bonnie and Clyde, La Jolla Playhouse
Featured Performance in a Musical, Male: Jordan Miller, Bed & Sofa, Cygnet Theatre
Choreography: Keith Young, Sammy, Old Globe Theatre
Music for a Play: Christopher R. Walker, Twelfth Night, Old Globe Theatre; David Van Tieghem, Creditors, La Jolla Playhouse
Touring Production: The 39 Steps, La Jolla Playhouse
New Play or Adaptation: Doug Wright, Creditors, La Jolla Playhouse
Outstanding Young Artist: Ian Brininstool, Over the Tavern, North Coast Rep
Sound Design: Lindsay Jones, Opus, Old Globe Theatre
Costume Design: Linda Cho, Twelfth Night, Old Globe Theatre
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman, Creditors, La Jolla Playhouse
Scenic Design: Michael McKeon, Killer Joe, Compass Theatre; Robert Brill, Creditors, La Jolla Playhouse
Ensemble Award: Opus, Old Globe Theatre; The Dresser, North Coast Repertory Theatre; Noises Off, Cygnet Theatre
Featured Performance in a Play, Female: Amanda Sitton, Doubt, San Diego Rep; Harriet Harris, Unusual Acts of Devotion, La Jolla Playhouse
Featured Performance in a Play, Male: Armin Shimerman, The Seafarer, San Diego Rep
Lead Performance in a Play, Female: Karson St. John, The Little Dog Laughed, Diversionary Theatre; Dana Hooley, Frozen, Ion Theatre
Lead Performance in a Play, Male: Patrick Page, Cyrano de Bergerac, Old Globe Theatre
Direction of a Play: Darko Tresnjak, Cyrano de Bergerac, Old Globe Theatre
Outstanding Production: Cyrano de Bergerac, Old Globe Theatre
The Whisper House by Duncan Sheik, music and lyrics, and Kyle Jarrow
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Peter Askin; cast: David Poe, Holly Brook, Mare Winningham, Arthur Acuña, Eric Zutty, Ted Koch, Kevin Hoffmann; scenic design, Michael Schweikardt; costumes, Jenny Mannis; lighting, Matthew Richards; sound, Dan Moses Schreier
Playing through February 21; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.