"Whisper House" is a ghost story musical that needs more life

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. 

I am quite a fan of Black Button Eyes Productions. I named the last play they produced in 2019, Ghost Quartet, one of the top plays of the year. Now, to begin 2020, the little theatre company specializing in fantasy, horror and the macabre once again turns to a musical ghost story, Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s Whisper House. And there is plenty to like about the show, starting with the performances, especially that of the young Leo Spiegel, who in his professional debut has the challenge of playing Christopher, a boy recently stunned by his father’s death and his mother’s nervous breakdown who is sent to live with an aunt he doesn’t even know in a haunted lighthouse during WWII. But no matter how strong the performances might be, a musical is only as good as its book and songs allow it to be, and in this case that is not strong enough.

The characters here are interesting. Aside from Christopher, who insists that he should be allowed despite his youth to return home and care for his mother, there is the aunt, Lily (Kate Nawrocki), who tends the lighthouse. She is a lost soul, crippled both by a club foot and her decision to live her life on this rock, a self-imposed penance for an imagined sin. Before her nephew arrives, the only other person living in the lighthouse is a Japanese American named Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo) who works as her handyman. Occasionally, she receives visits from a sheriff played by TJ Anderson who watches out for her well-being.

Sharing the lighthouse also are two ghosts (Mikaela Sullivan and Kevin Webb), the spirits of people who drowned when their boat crashed twenty years ago on the rocks beyond the lighthouse. They are angry spirits, determined that others should share the fate that they feel should never have been theirs, and they immediately set out to lure young Christopher to his death.

The ghosts, though well-played, are part of the problem with this play in several ways. They were formerly singers in a band on the ill-fated yacht (and both possess wonderful voices), but other than that they have no discernible specific personality points until a suggestion near the end that they may have been lovers whose lives were cut short. Instead, Jarrow and Sheik essentially make them the show’s narrators. Almost all of the songs are sung by these two, and little about them betrays anything personal. They are all simply narrative or stating some version of the show’s themes.

The musical opens with a number (apparently) called “Better Off Dead,” a fairly endless song that states that, in their opinions, all living souls would be better off…well, you know. The number does, however, rather accurately illustrate Sheik’s musical template in this play. The composer, who found so many exciting emotional levels in Spring Awakening, here settles for one gloomy, plodding number after another, and the fact that none of them illuminates the complex inner lives of the living characters means that we rarely get the opportunity to hear anything but the ghostly minor key machinations of spirits whose murderous desire is never really clear. (If they feel that death is so great, why don’t they simply celebrate it?) They do share one song with Anderson, but it too is a narrative one. It might have revealed to us something about this man whose nationalism and bigotry can only seem reasonable in the context of WWII, like for example how he feels about Lily—there is a hint that he cares about her more than he lets on. Instead, we learn about the life of the man whose yacht sank. It’s a good song, and one of the few up-tempo ones, but couldn’t Sheik have written something more introspective?

Jarrow’s book is just as much to blame. We have several potentially interesting things going on here besides the ghosts and the haunting: a child whose life has been turned upside down by war, a broken woman whose brother was killed in that war who spends her life tending her dead father’s lighthouse, a U-Boat sighted off the Maine shore nearby, and a Japanese man who has chosen to live this lonely life as well and who now faces the very real spectre of internment camps. Who really are these people? What secrets do they harbor? What pain do they feel? There are answers to these questions, but they—like most everything else here—are told to us rather than shown, and the characters don’t get the opportunity to expound upon them, as one might expect, in song. In addition to this, the book has (or anyway director Ed Rutherford can find) no humor at all (until a bows number that pokes a bit of fun at the show), something that might well have helped…or at least altered the tone a bit.

Rutherford’s direction is generally quite good, especially for a stage necessarily smaller than usual because of the presence of Micky York’s band. He makes great use of what he has, though, using carefully plotted movement to suggest the layout of the various rooms in the lighthouse as well as the aisles to keep the visuals fresh and occasionally very imaginative. Coupled with Derek Van Barham’s spooky choreography, Rutherford manages continually to make what truly are limited options less repetitive. However, some of his choices feel at best a bit awkward, starting with the fact that three of the characters, for no apparent reason, play musical instruments onstage. And two of them are the ghosts! I accept singing ghosts readily, but a ghost playing a guitar or tambourine? You can get away with that in the much more layered Ghost Quartet, but here it just seems intrusive. Besides, isn’t that what the band is for?

Whisper House has a fascinating concept and there are fine actors and musicians involved. It’s actually the kind of play that I usually like a lot. Unfortunately, though, I can’t recommend it. 

Whisper House is a Black Button Eyes production now playing at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL, until Feb 15. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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