By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
Over the past 20 years, the theater troupe The Civilians has primarily specialized in documentary theater, using interviews of real people to explore such topics as the environment, pornography, and the evangelical Christian movement. Intriguingly, the company’s haunting new 90-minute musical, Whisper House, now making its New York debut at 59E59 Theaters, sometimes feels like a true-life tale is being recounted to us. And while the work does integrate real elements of American history, its story is completely rooted in the imagination of its creators.
Kyle Jarrow’s book unfurls with the elegance of a finely crafted short story, as it details the changing lives of its central characters: 12-year-old Christopher (an affecting Wyatt Cirbus), whose father has recently perished in World War II and whose mother has gone insane with grief; Lily (a superb Samantha Mathis), his emotionally guarded, unmarried aunt who has spent her whole life taking care of the family’s lighthouse in Maine and who is remarkably unequipped – in every possible way – to be a substitute mother for the anguished Christopher; and Yasuhiro (the excellent James Yaegashi), a Japanese widower who has spent the past few years as Lily’s helper, but whose motives for being in the U.S. come under suspicion from both Christopher and semi-kindly local sheriff Bob (a very good Jeb Brown).
Indeed, Jarrow’s story is compelling enough that the show’s score, with music by Tony Award winner Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Sheik and Jarrow, could easily seem superfluous. In fact, only a few numbers are actually sung by any of the aforementioned characters, most notably, Yasuhiro’s moving ballad “The Art of Being Unseen,” which adds another layer of mystery to his character.
Instead, we hear mostly from two gorgeous 1920s-era ghosts (the equally superb Alex Boniello and Molly Hager) who act as commentators/narrators, as well as “interacting” with the other characters. Initially, they seem to be an unnecessarily malicious duo, telling us in the opening number that everyone in the story (and us, by extension) would be “better off dead.” But we eventually – and quite cleverly — learn their connection to the show’s plot. Moreover, their songs are definitely the catchiest in the score, with special kudos to the lively and quirky “The Ballad of Solomon Snell,” which also has its basis in a little-known facet of American history.
In addition to guiding his first-rate cast, director Steve Cosson has put together a remarkably beautiful production with the help of such top-tier talents as set designer Alexander Dodge (who makes marvelous use of Theater A’s space); costume designer Linda Cho, lighting designers Jorge Aroyo and Jeff Croiter, and, especially, sound designer Ken Travis, who helps give musical fullness to the smallish off-stage band (and Boniello, who plays guitar).
Those theatergoers seeking the spectacle of Wicked, the novelistic approach of Les Miserables or the giddiness of Six may not find the show to their liking, but audiences seeking small-scale pleasure will want to make a visit to this House.
Whisper House continues at 59E59 Theatres (59 East 59th Street) through February 6. For more information, visit 59E59.org.
Photos: Richard Termine
Lead Photo: Alex Boniello, Wyatt Cirbus & Molly Hager