He's in no position to throw his arms around her, but Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna) declares his love for Lilly (Mare Winningham) in spite of it all.I've had the CD from The Old Globe Theatre's Whisper House for a little more than a year. Obviously, I've been listening to the tunes out of context, as the show had its world premiere at The Globe just last Thursday, Jan. 21. I have to say the dirge-like melodies have grown on me during that time, and I looked forward last weekend to putting a face with the name, hoping the story would turn out to be more than a bridge to the songs.
In one respect, it did. Playwright Kyle Jarrow is a musician's author; he knows when to illustrate his words with music, and he defers to the songs exactly on cue. Composer Duncan Sheik, who wrote the tunes for the spectacular Spring Awakening (he won one of the show's eight Tonys for 2007), somehow finds lushness in these spooky numbers, sung by two ghosts to a hapless boy at a remote New England lighthouse.
The problem—and it's huge—lies in the show's overall sense of itself. In trying to give his words a life separate from the music, Jarrow has dumbed down his script to an almost preschool level, and Michael Schweikardt's murky set is wholly underused while Sheik's work commands the lion's share of the attention. As an event, Whisper House makes a very good concert. As a play, it's as elusive as the ghosts themselves.
Eleven-year-old Christopher (A.J. Foggiano), fresh off his airman father's death and his mom's emotional collapse during World War II, has been shipped from Chicago to the Maine coast, where his Aunt Lilly (Mare Winningham) will take over his care. Lilly works out of her home—she tends the lighthouse that trips Chris' fears. Creepy music leaks through Chris' bedroom walls and gives way to the apparitions (David Poe and Holly Brook), drowned on their honeymoon cruise 30 years earlier. They've come to warn the boy of the dangers that lie ahead; Lilly's surly right-hand man Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna) is already suspect amid his Japanese heritage, and those German U-boats off the coast look mighty hungry.
It all comes out in the wash, with Christopher learning valuable lessons about facing the unknown (“Here are your lines,” the ghosts sing in “Play Your Part,” “now stick to the page / Like the wise man said, ‘All the world's a stage'”). Speeches driven by explanations of the set (“The stairs are old; they creak”) and tired platitudes (“I'm not going to leave you, Christopher… I promise”) just don't measure up to such lyrics. Neither do director Peter Askin's stage pictures. Schweikardt's terrific scenery sits virtually unoccupied as often as not, precisely when some decent choreography would enliven the tunes.
I loved Winningham's performance as Lilly—she doesn't miss a nuance of the character's button-down nature. And I really, really, really like the music, at once full-throated and subdued. If you care to join me in my revelry, then by all means, see Whisper House. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a good time, Ion Theatre's Hurlyburly is still on at Diversionary. This review is based on the matinée performance of Jan. 23. Whisper House runs through Feb. 21 at The Old Globe Theatre mainstage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park. $45-$79. www.oldglobe.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.