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By C. Davis Remignanti

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, 5 FEBRUARY 2010 — It should work. It almost does. But Whisper House, which is in its world premiere run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, is in need of significant tinkering.

On paper, at least, Whisper House, the new musical collaboration from Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant), has all the ingredients for a fascinating and fulfilling evening of theater.

Three storm-tossed individuals — a man, a woman and a child — are thrown together by happenstance, setting up a nice piece of dramaturgical tension over whether the unlikely trio can form a family unit, finding solace and fulfillment in each others’ company. Place them in an eerily gothic setting, then toss in the presence of a couple of grudge-holding ghosts, intent on spoiling everyone’s chances for happiness. Finally, wrap the entire story in an unusual theatrical form — one where the mortals do all the talking and the ghosts do all the singing.

Michael Schweikardt’s set for Whisper House
Photo courtesy of The Old Globe Theatre

The problem is that the two threads — dramatic and musical — are not intertwining gracefully. Everything about the evening’s presentation is period (early in World War II) except the music which, even though lovely, is decidedly contemporary. The effect is rather like flipping channels between two television programs — spending a few minutes watching a classic film on AMC, then dashing over to MTV for some music, then back to the movie, etc… What is perhaps the evening’s most ear-worm-worthy tune ("The Tale of Solomon Snell") is awkwardly shoe-horned into the proceedings and, while a fun diversion, serves mostly to grind the story to a four-minute halt.

The stylistic time-shifting is a worthy conceit, one that served Mr. Sheik well in his fantastically popular Spring Awakening. But here it’s not fully cooked, and Whisper House needs the hand of a brave and ruthless master chef who can make the possibly-painful decisions required to allow the disparate flavors to blend into a savory whole.

Emmy Award winner Mare Winningham is pitch- and picture-perfect as Miss Lilly, but she deserves the opportunity to show the cracks in her character’s curmudgeonly veneer, a chance not afforded her with the current script and direction. (Unfortunate news: Ms. Winningham is leaving the production two weeks into its run, citing "scheduling conflicts." Hmmm.) Arthur Acuña gives a fine performance as Yasuhiro, but he seems miscast physically — distractingly youthful and, frankly, buff — which serves to strain even a willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to the tender feelings that sprout between his character and Lilly.  (Clever costuming would go a long way toward correcting that oversight.) The pivotal role of young Christopher will always be a challenge to cast, as the script, the story, indeed the entire evening hinges on a child actor with dramatic skills far in advance of his years.

Arthur Acuña and Mare Winningham in Whisper House
Photo courtesy of The Old Globe Theatre

The two un-named ghosts, as currently presented, are meant to be menacing (they sing: "We’re here to tell you / Ghosts are here for good / If this doesn’t terrify you / It should. It should.") but, in fact, they are creepy only in the way Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice was — odd, yes, but all-in-all, kind of entertaining and fun to have around. Certainly not the kind of ghosts that could plausibly encourage a little boy to consider killing himself. In the fuzzily-conceived roles, David Poe and Holly Brook show they’ve got the musical chops, but in the end, the ghosts are just too darn likeable.

Michael Schweikardt’s beautiful and evocative set is under-served by Matthew Richard’s lighting — just because the dramatic mood is dark doesn’t mean essential pieces of stage business should take place in near-total darkness.

Finally, the evening seems a bit brief — the intermission-less performance clocks in at just over 90 minutes — and, if the exasperated sighs of the audience members around me are any indication, the end is abrupt and unsatisfying. The proceedings could easily sustain an additional 20 - 25 minutes, precious opportunity to let the characters and story develop a more fully realized depth of flavor.

Whisper House is a worthy evening out, but for the wrong reasons: either because it affords the audience member a chance to see what could become the next great thing in an early and un-refined state, or because it might be your only opportunity to witness what may prove to be nothing more than an asterisk in the history of musical theater.

Whisper House
Through 21 February 2010
The Old Globe Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA 92101-1696
Tel: (1) 619 234 56 23

C. Davis Remignanti writes on design and the visual and decorative arts for He last wrote on The Johnny Mercer Centenary

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