In the fifteen years since Spring Awakening premiered at the Atlantic, Duncan Sheik has been indefatigable in composing new music for the stage. He’s worked with a variety of lyricists and playwrights and yielded varying results, but the guy never gives up. His latest offering, Whisper House, is not his most recent; it’s been in the works since at least 2009-10 when Sheik released a concept album and the show premiered at the Old Globe. Because of its long gestational period, it feels closer to Spring Awakening than his later scores, but finds a distinct and memorable voice. The result is Sheik’s most enjoyable score in years.
Whisper House is indebted to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and similar gothic ghost stories, though the playwright Kyle Jarrow has set the musical in 1942 during the war. Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus) is a twelve-year-old boy who finds himself essentially orphaned when his father dies and his mother is driven mad by grief. He is sent to live with a maiden aunt, Lily (Samantha Mathis), in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. Lily has employed a Japanese immigrant, Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi), to help run the lighthouse, but Roosevelt has signed an executive order declaring the area a military zone and “enemy aliens” like Yasuhiro are no longer allowed. Christopher is distraught from losing his father in battle and blames Yasuhiro immediately, simply because he is Japanese.
Oh, and the lighthouse is haunted. Twenty years before the events of the play, a ship crashed on the rocks below the lighthouse and two singers were among the casualties. Alex Boniello and Molly Hager play these ghostly singers and serve as narrators-cum-masterminds who are trying to destroy the lives of everyone involved. “They’d all be better off dead,” the ghosts tell us in the opening song. They introduce us to each of the characters individually and set the plot in motion. Christopher, Lily, and Yasuhiro cannot hear or see the ghosts, but their presence is felt. Occasionally, Hager waves a hand and their bodies are physically affected. The ghosts do most of the singing and Boniello also plays guitar. But where the play meets the score/ghosts, Whisper House starts to fray.
The ghosts actually have little do with the plot. They tell us they’re in control and they tell us that we should be scared of them, but I’m unconvinced. They are less than threatening. Boniello and Hager are both appealing performers bedecked in creepy makeup and off-white formal wear. They look less like they’ve been languishing on the shores of limbo than like they’ve just finished a shift at the McKittrick Hotel. The events of the play transpire because Christopher and the local sheriff (Jeb Brown) – and the entire country – have the racist belief that all Japanese people are spies and should be imprisoned. If the ghosts are trying to ruin Yasuhiro and Lily’s lives, they don’t actually have to do anything: anti-Japanese rhetoric will take care of that. Sheik’s score builds tension by commenting on the events and the ghosts are effective outside observers, but the songs do not affect anything directly, thus the ghosts are not causing anything. When characters aside from the ghosts sing, it feels out of place, like they’re crossing a boundary. Yasuhiro has an entire song about being unseen, but none of the other characters are given a solo song. His feeling invisible because of his race is not related back to the ghosts literally being invisible. It feels like a missed opportunity to not have a ghost sing the song to Yasuhiro. The piece might work better if the all the songs are commentaries and only the ghosts sing.
If the entire play is meant to be a tale told by the ghosts, then their control over the events wanes as the plot kicks in. They often enter and stand to the side watching, but their corporeal form gets in the way. Several times, other characters will enter and the ghosts have to counter or cross upstage to make room. They’re ghosts…why are they ceding ground? Especially if they’re in charge of the whole thing. It’s no fault of Boniello’s or Hager’s, or even of director Steve Cosson’s. It’s more that there’s fundamental confusion between what these ghosts say they’re doing and how they’re actually functioning. Every time they retreated, I wanted them back immediately. The “play” part is equally captivating, but the ghosts are so bad ass and their songs are so cool (when the trumpet comes in, it’s thrilling every time), I longed for them to be more central, more necessary, not to the plot, but to the theatrical storytelling.
Jarrow’s play takes very little time to effectively flush out the characters and create meaningful relationships between them. It’s a sharp, economical bit of writing and confirms him, after his stellar work on SpongeBob Squarepants, as an incomparable librettist. We meet Christopher, Lily, and Yasuhiro only at a time of upheaval. We don’t get to know them outside of this, but Jarrow still finds a way to show that there’s a lot more life under these dampened souls.
Jarrow shares lyrical duty with Sheik and many of the songs feature clever ideas. The ghosts have a climactic song in which they flip the edict that “there’s no such thing as ghosts” on its head. “We don’t believe in you,” they tell us. Humans are the thing that is unreal in their world. Creating a starker line between the living and the dead within Whisper House would bring out the best of both realms.