Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: JANUARY 29, 2010
Shhhhh . Be very careful and quiet. There are ghosts prowling around The Old Globe. Prowling and singing. And scaring the bejeezus out of a young boy… in “Whisper House.”
It’s 1942. Christopher’s pilot father was recently shot down by the Japanese. That catapulted his mother into a nervous breakdown. So the young boy is sent away to his aunt, a dour spinster who manages a windswept New England lighthouse. She has no experience with children. She barely talks to him. But the ghosts talk a lot, feeding on Christopher’s fears, encouraging him to think scary thoughts, do unsavory things. They’ve been hanging around since Halloween eve in 1912, when their party boat was capsized and everyone went down. Now they want retribution; they want other souls to join them. They want to get back into the game. Still dressed in their evening clothes, top hats and all, they taunt poor Christopher, who’s having enough trouble with his taciturn aunt, and the Japanese handyman who works for her. Is he a spy? Should Christopher turn him in? What’s the right thing to do in this situation? With no guidance except from the ghosts, Christopher is at a crossroads in his young life.
The aim of this world premiere ghost story, says its creator, the Tony and Grammy-winning Duncan Sheik, is to view the war through a young boy’s eyes. How does a lonely, inquisitive 11 year-old sort out what’s going on, with U-boats lurking in the water, bombers flying overhead, a dead father, a mother he may never see again and someone Japanese skulking around in the next room? And how does he conquer his escalating fears?
Expectations were high for Sheik’s next project, after “Spring Awakening,” his groundbreaking, knockout show that in 2007, won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. He’s on something of the same turf – coming-of-age, taking chances. But this isn’t going to be a blockbuster. It’s a quiet show, as its name suggests. It’s also quirky and unpredictable.
The music is dark and minor key, mournful, ethereal, menacing at times. The ten songs are performed by two spectral singers, backed by an equally otherworldly seven-piece band. The set is a strikingly evocative staircase that spirals up three levels. Effective projections bring us the roiling water, and floating phantoms.
The cast is excellent, though some of the secondary characters seem unnecessary. Stage and screen veteran Mare Winningham is perfect as the barely communicative aunt. And 15 year-old A.J. Foggiano , who joined the cast just five days before opening, is impressive as a shell-shocked kid who’s over his head and going under.
This show may not make it to the Tonys. But you should jump at the chance to catch an intriguing and eccentric new piece of theater, before it wafts away.
“Whisper House” runs through February 21 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park .
©2010 PAT LAUNER