I present to you a story set upon a Northern shore. Denizens of lighthouse during times of war.  The foolish things they did.  The foolish things they said. I’m sure you would agree they would be better off dead.”

Singing these lyrics are a 1910s-garbed 2010-alternative-rock-performing pair of ghosts haunting a 1941 Maine lighthouse. The spectral vocalists, one male, one female, and their equally deceased backup band are the victims of a 1912 Halloween night shipwreck, unable even 29 years later to depart from the lighthouse whose keeper brought about their deaths through negligence. If only he had remembered to turn on the light that fateful night.

Welcome to the world of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s mesmerizing new musical drama Whisper House, now getting its World Premiere production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater.

The alt-rock ghosts (David Poe and Holly Brook) continue their exposition in song:

“Lilly keeps the lighthouse. She’s afraid of the unknown. She’s no ray of sunshine, so mostly she’s alone.  No one cares about her longing or the dreams on which she’s fed.”  And…

“Witness Yasuhiro. He hails from old Japan. He searches for redemption in this strange and foreign land.  And now he works for Lilly to earn his daily bread. And…

“Please welcome young Christopher. He’s come here on a train. His father flew to heaven in a fiery aeroplane. He’s come to live with Lilly.  He’s got visions in his head.” 

Lilly (Mare Winningham), Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuña), Christopher (A.J. Foggiano), and Charles, the Sherrif (Ted Kōch), would all, we are told by the ghosts, be “better off dead,” that is if the two spirits haunting Lilly’s lighthouse can have their way.  To paraphrase the old adage, “Death loves company.”

Lilly, a self-described curmudgeon, is scarcely the mothering type as preteen Christopher soon discovers.  Her chilly presence combined with the loss of a mother (still reeling from her fighter pilot husband’s death) and the possibly dangerous presence of Lilly’s “Jap” lighthouse worker begin to make Christopher long for oblivion, the kind promised by ghosts that only he can see.  Sheriff Charles, too, considers Yasuhiro a threat, particularly now that German U-boats are out there somewhere along the Maine coast quite possibly ready to strike.  Add to this lonely quartet young Navy Lieutenant Rando (Kevin Hoffman) come to arrest Yasuhiro and cart him off to an internment camp, and there you have pretty much the characters and plot of Whisper House, minus its touching, tear-jerking denouement.

If the above synopsis seems hardly the stuff of a musical, fear not, for it can only hint at the magical spell woven by Whisper House. Fans of Sheik’s score for the Broadway hit Spring Awakening will have some idea of the minor-keyed songs he has composed for this newest endeavor, melodies eminently deserving the term haunting.  Until the play’s final moments, none of the characters sing a note, making Whisper House an amalgam of alt-rock concert and straight play. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I loved every minute.


As frightening as the ghosts are to Christopher, they are not above a bit of mischief-making, pulling the sheets off the boy’s bed, blowing out candles, and making the obnoxious young lieutenant dance a jaunty jig. Mostly for us, though, they are there to sing, both to and about the characters on stage, and in one particularly spooky number, about an unfortunate man named Solomon Snell.

Meanwhile, Winningham, Lilly, Acuña, Foggiano, Kōch, and Hoffman bring Lilly, Yasuhiro, Christopher, Charles, and the lieutenant to vivid life under the exquisite direction of Peter Askin.  Winningham, one of the St. Elmo’s Fire “brat pack,” has graduated to the middle-aged roles she seemed born to play even back then. Her Lilly is so brittle from the chill in her heart that it seems at times that she could break from it, making her gradual warming to Christopher all the more powerful. Filipino-American Acuña is absolutely convincing as Japanese Yasuhiro, and if Lilly’s temperature is rising, it’s at least in part due to the sparks he’s igniting by his mere presence in a room.  Foggiano is a heartbreaking mixture of longing, loneliness, and juvenile bravado, and he’s got as great a face as you’re ever likely to see in a child actor. Kōch does richly three-dimensional work as a man whose own sense of right and wrong may be at odds with what’s required of him in time of war. Hoffmann makes the most of his brief role as an oddly endearing loose cannon of an Navy officer.

Still, it is the performances of Poe and Brook that make Whisper House so out of the ordinary, he with his rockstar voice mixing gravel and silk, she with her ethereal pipes and otherworldly presence. Together, they have an electricity that’s not quite there on Sheik and Brook’s concept CD, but which comes alive when backed by music director Jason Hart on keyboard and the rest of the live upstage band.  On CD, most of the songs give little clue to the onstage action. On stage, they accentuate and enhance the drama that unfolds. 

There is no real choreography per se, but Dance Director Wesley Fata has designed graceful, evocative movement for the cast, particularly for the ghostly pair.

Michael Schweikardt’s three-story set manages to suggest a lighthouse atop a seacoast home without extraneous detail. Aaron Rhyne’s superb projections show us the pounding surf below, silhouettes of the ghosts as Christopher likely sees them, and armies of GI’s marching off to war.  Matthew Richards’ delicate lighting design adds to the air of mystery.  Jenny Mannis’s excellent costumes run the gamut from early-20th Century evening wear to Lilly’s drab housedresses.  Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design has rock concert volume and clarity without drowning out the voices on stage.

A review can only begin to suggest the eerie enchantment of Whisper House. If those vocalizing ghosts play their cards right, this show could easily go on to become a cult classic. Clearly, Spring Awakening was only the beginning of singer-songwriter Sheik’s theatrical magic.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
January 31, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Craig Schwartz

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