Tony and Grammy Award winning composer Duncan Sheik must have the most diverse catalog of musicals possible. Among his works are musicals based on such disparate texts as Franz Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Kate Di Camilo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, no two having anything in common except that they tend to be coming of age stories. Often they reach New York long after their gestation period.
His latest New York debut is Whisper House, an original work with book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow (libretto for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical) and music and lyrics by Sheik, conceived with Keith Powell. Whisper House started life in 2009 as a concept album and premiered at the Old Globle Theatre, San Diego, the following year.
Whisper House is now being billed as a ghost story or Gothic mystery but it really is neither. A four character musical with two additional singers playing ghostly narrators, the story takes place in 1942 at a lighthouse on the coast of Maine in the early years of the United States involvement with World War II. This is the time when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 creating military zones where “enemy aliens” were not permitted. This eventually led to the deportation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. While the story of German U-boats off the east coast is not well-known, the history of how the U.S. treated Japanese-Americans during W.W. II has become widely known due to movies and memoirs.
Young Christopher’s father, a pilot, has died in the war and his mother has had a nervous breakdown and is now living in an institution. Christopher is sent to live with his eccentric and taciturn Aunt Lily (played by film and stage star Samantha Mathis), his father’s sister who he has never met, in a remote coastal lighthouse which she runs with the help of Mr. Yasuhiro, a Japanese man, 20 years in the United States after the death of his wife.
Warned that the lighthouse is haunted, Christopher begins to hear music through the walls of his bedroom. We later hear the story of the yacht that sunk 20 years before drowning two singers who were to be the evening’s entertainment. Christopher takes an instant dislike to Yasuhiro and when he sees him using a camera after being told by the Sheriff that German U-boats are in the vicinity he thinks the worst. This eventually leads to the climactic confrontation that changes them all.
The songs which are mainly sung by Alex Boniello (usually with a guitar) and Molly Hager as the ghostly narrators are folk ballads which though lovely sound like a continuation of the same song. While the theme of racism against Asians is extremely timely, the treatment is wedded to the 1940’s and seems to be many years late. There is a great deal we do not learn about the characters which leaves holes in the plot. The tale is very derivative of earlier stories with the same tropes: haunted lighthouse (Thunder Rock), boy goes to live with strange relatives (The Grass Harp), malevolent ghosts, one male, one female (The Turn of the Screw), etc.
As staged by Steve Cosson (artistic director of The Civilians), the actors feature one trait each: Aunt Lily, remote; Christopher, angry; Yasuhiro, inscrutable; The Sheriff, a stickler for the rules. While this does not make them one-dimensional, it does diminish them and tell us less about them than we want to know. As the two ghostly figures, Alex Boniello and Molly Hager are sinister due to the nature of the words to their songs suggesting death is preferable to life and their attempting to influence Christopher.
As the 12-year-old Christopher, Wyatt Cirbus seems to be much older so that his anger and recalcitrance seems misplaced; we wonder why he is not more mature. Mathis’s very remoteness is off-putting and she remains enigmatic even after she tells Christopher her story. James Yaegashi who is given little to say as Yasuhiro seems to be hiding things so that we have a great many unanswered questions about him. As The Sheriff, Jeb Brown is a cliché of the stern law enforcement officer who suppresses his human side. Although the story holds our attention, none of the characters are sympathetic enough to make us care deeply about them. They are all damaged people who are hiding behind their problems.
The production design is intriguing though not as beautiful or spooky as it might be. The unit set by Alexander Dodge is a semi-circle of blue-black drapes that represent the round lighthouse which is moodily lit by Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter. This is enhanced by periodic fog by special effects designer Jeremy Chernick. The appropriately lived-in looking costumes are by Linda Cho. The haunting orchestrations are by Sheik, Jason Hart and music director Wiley DeWeese, with the help of Simon Hale on the wind orchestrations. Billy Bustamante’s choreography is confined to the two ghosts. Whisper House is a chamber musical that appears to accomplish what it set out to do. It might have been more effective it the characters and story had been further fleshed out. The score though pleasant is not varied enough to sustain an evening of theater, while the staging is engrossing without being dramatic enough to cast a long spell. Whisper House is a lovely little musical that seems in need of further development.
Whisper House (through February 6, 2022)
Theater A at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/whisper-house-2022/
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission