Stories about stories usually go one of two ways: empty but pleasurable or just plain pretentious. Composer Dave Malloy’s rollicking song cycle Ghost Quartet tends towards the former, but it so immensely pleasurable that most of the emptiness is forgiven. If Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was a glittering Tsarist palace, Ghost Quartet is an inviting but ramshackle fisherman’s hut: cramped and a little uncomfortable but still a great place to hear a well-spun yarn.
Ghost Quartet features four performers—TJ Anderson, Alex Ellsworth, Rachel Guth and Amanda Raquel Martinez—singing songs and swapping tales of murder, love and the awfully thin lines between the two. Their stories are drawn from a mix of originals and public-domain classics like One Thousand and One Nights and The Fall of the House of Usher; the ghost of Thelonius Monk makes an appearance, as do several popular brands of whiskey. As the show progresses, songs and stories and characters blur together and themes of reincarnation and the afterlife come to the fore. The bonds among the storytellers seem to traverse the laws of time and space.
In characteristic fashion, Malloy’s restless musical stylings evoke barroom shanties, classical concertos and electro-pop singles in equal measure. And under the guidance of director Ed Rutherford and musical director Nick Sula, the cast of this Chicago premiere production brings Malloy’s score to dazzling life, buoyed by Jeremy Hollis’s eclectic, bric-a-brac-strewn set and an impressive array of soulful, witty projections by designer G. Max Maxin IV. Malloy’s singular dramatic flair and impatience with cliché are well-served.
Neither a fully-realized show nor a simple collection of songs, Ghost Quartet inhabits a netherspace betwixt the two, and for all its charms it eventually droops under the weight of its own unique contrivances. Even at 90 minutes, it feels drawn out, and any attempts to follow its “plot” will only result in frustration. That it sticks around a bit too long is fitting, though: Ghosts, after all, do the same.
Black Button Eyes Productions. Book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy. Directed by Ed Rutherford. With TJ Anderson, Alex Ellsworth, Rachel Guth and Amanda Raquel Martinez. Running time: 90 minutes. No intermission.