Theater review by Adam Feldman
Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow have been working on Whisper House for more than a decade, but it still seems oddly undeveloped. This grim wisp of a musical is set in 1942, shortly after the United States has entered World War II. The miserable 12-year-old Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus)—his mother having had a nervous breakdown after the death of his father—is sent to live with his gruff aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis), who operates the second-biggest lighthouse in Maine. The presence of her friend, a gentle Japanese immigrant named Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi), engenders suspicion from the local sheriff (Jeb Brown), especially as reports arrive of a possible German U-boat presence in the area. What tragic history haunts this spot? What dangers may lurk there unseen? These are the questions at the foundation of Whisper House, but they are all but lost in a sea of dull grey.
There is enough story here for a one-act musical, but Sheik and Jarrow haven’t musicalized it much. The four living characters barely sing at all; instead, the vast majority of the score is assigned to a pair of attractive ghosts (Molly Hager and Alex Boniello) dressed like extras from The Great Gatsby. Singers on a fancy yacht that sank nearby in the 1920s, they now haunt the house where Lily lives and also act as petulant narrators, sneering out dire bummers in song after song. From their first: “Life is naught but pain / It’s better to be dead.” From their second: “If you’re terrified today / That’s how you ought to feel.” From their third: “Life’s a tragic picture show / Unanswered prayers and tales of woe.” These misfortune cookies get stale fast, and by the start of their fourth song (“It’s morning at the lighthouse / Another dismal day”) it’s hard not to find them more silly than scary as they glower and cavort through Billy Bustamante’s overcompensatory choreography.
Directed by Steve Cosson, Whisper House works fine when the living characters are given room to breathe; Mathis—with a clubfooted limp and an old New England accent—gives a simple, affecting performance at the story’s center. And Sheik’s moody music, whose emotional pull transcends the libretto, is rendered well by a six-person band led by Wiley DeWeese (who is also one of four people credited for the very fine orchestrations). But there’s only so far the show can travel when it’s chained to the dead weight of those two drowned specters. “Things are broke and way past mending,” they sing with typical gloom, and perhaps Sheik and Jarrow should heed their advice. They have done what they can to build Whisper House, but it may be time to give up the ghosts.
Whisper House. 59E59 Theaters (Off Broadway). Music by Duncan Sheik. Lyrics by Sheik and Kyle Jarrow. Book by Jarrow. Conceived with Keith Powell. Directed by Steve Cosson. With Samantha Mathis, James Yaegashi, Molly Hager, Alex Boniello, Jeb Brown, Wyatt Cirbus. Running time: 1hrs 25mins. No intermission.
Whisper House | Photograph: Courtesy Richard Termine