To the Lighthouse

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Theatergoers today are living through the downsizing of the American musical. When Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel premiered on Broadway in 1945 it boasted over 60 actors, singers and dancers on the stage of the Majestic Theatre; the recent Reprise Theatre Company production in Westwood, had only a cast of 24. When Lerner & Lowe's Camelot opened on Broadway in 1960 (also at the Majestic) it had a cast of 56; compare that to the recent Pasadena Playhouse production that had a total of eight, yes, eight actors in the whole show.

WhisperHouse9.jpgThere are certainly ways to stage big, American musicals in clever and intimate ways (the Sweeney Todd that played at the Ahmanson two years ago being a prime example) but this is a problem since the big-ness of those old shows is an inherent part of their appeal. The best way around this is for theaters to come up with new musicals that don't have weighted expectations, and a perfect example of this is currently playing at the Old Globe Theater.

Whisper House, a new musical that had its World Premiere at the Old Globe last month, is a small musical — or perhaps to use a more polite term, a chamber musical. It features only a cast of five...well, five actors and who portray living characters — and then two other performers who sing and play ghosts.

WhisperHouse5.jpgTo musical fans (as well as KCRW listeners) the big news is that the Whisper House is written by Duncan Sheik, the singer-songwriter who's been a regular on Morning Becomes Eclectic since his eponymous debut album and who also won two Tony awards for his score to the 2007 Broadway show Spring Awakening.

Whisper House originated with a concept album that was released last year by Sony. The musical follows that album closely and features songs that are more low-key and low-fi than the aggressive indie-rock sound of Spring Awakening. Most of the ballads are easy to listen to, even if they act more as explanation than organically integrated musical-theater show tunes.

I wasn't such a big fan of the way Sheik's grungy ‘tween anthems clashed with Wedekind's repressed 19th century romanticism in Spring Awakening; and here too, Sheik's indie-pop style sounds at odds with what is essentially a mid-century, gothic, short story about an orphan living with his aunt during World War II.

WhisperHouse1.jpgBut in Whisper House, the clash of styles can be dramatically justified by the fact that the songs are sung by ghosts — and ghosts, as we all know, aren't tethered to any particular musical idiom. Luckily, the two performers playing the apparitions (David Poe and Holly Brook) look good in their bohemian chic outfits and both are engaging M.C.'s.

The dramatic acting is less compelling but certainly serviceable. A.J. Foggiano is strong as the young boy Christopher and Mare Winnigham and Arthur Acuña are understated but effective as the Aunt and Japanese handyman who inhabit the spooky New England Lighthouse that serves as the musical's setting.

Whisper House is much less ambitious than Spring Awakening and ultimately more coherent; but its elegant, jewel box compactness occasionally makes you question if the story (written by Kyle Jarrow) and the problems of its characters is dramatic or “big” enough to warrant being elevated to the stage. Perhaps this is less the fault of the show and of more a matter of expectations — if smaller casts are indeed going to be the norm, then Peter Askin's intimate production of Whisper House may indeed be a beacon, pointing audiences (and producers) towards the future of American musicals.

Whisper House runs through this Sunday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Craig Schwartz