Death Over Life

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.

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Duncan Sheik's modern, singer/songwriter-driven songs of Spring Awakening are what made it so compelling to so many. 8 Tony Awards and a Grammy later, that show is responsible for introducing an entire new generation to musical theater.

With the genre plagued by mediocre revivals and blockbuster-inspired tripe, Whisper Houses's shotgun wedding of drama, rock concert and film represents another innovation, to say the least. The show is already Broadway-bound: it's premiere at the Old Globe is a feather in the cap of both the theater and the city's arts community.

But even in the flagging world of musical theater, innovation can be divisive. So perhaps it is no surprise that reviewer Jeff Smith's conservative sensibilities were offended by this brilliant new work.

Mr. Smith's hand-wringing over what ghosts are REALLY like and the breaking of the precious fourth wall -- as if that is unprecdented -- are simply silly; but ultimately, his review betrays a deep contempt for San Diegans' ability to comprehend and appreciate new theater. In his review, he pats us on the head and tells us what songs in musicals are for. But his understanding of what new theater can be is not just old school, it's downright asinine in 2010.

So it is unfortunate that his nasty review will stand as the Reader's take on this play, a production which respects the modern audience by avoiding the predictable.

Moreover, Mr. Smith stands alone in his harsh criticism: the LA Times says "In an age of shamelessly commercial blockbusters, [Whisper House] is every bit as noteworthy as a return from the dead." Theatermania concluded "there's enough promise in Whisper House that Sheik might have another hit musical on his hands." Both publications noted the excellence of the performances, music, arrangements and unique set design.

But perhaps most unfortunate of all is the failure here to note Whisper Houses' subtle commentary on war, racism and the culture of fear -- all points that, remarkably, Mr. Smith seems to have missed.

Or maybe he avoided comment on the themes of the play because he doesn't think we'd get it.

For those more interested in indulging in 20th century tropes, there is an excellent take on Neil Simon's Lost In Yonkers playing next door. For those interested in the future of musical theater, there is Whisper House.

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