Daniel Cooney in Nevermore
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Daniel Cooney in Nevermore
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
We may have to coin a new term to describe Nevermore, the unusual show into which Eric Schaeffer has breathed life at Virginia's Signature Theatre. The director has described this world premiere show, based on the work and life of Edgar Allan Poe, "as a cross between musical theatre and Cirque du Soleil." I would say it's a psychosexual journey through one man's dreams and nightmares, or maybe a nonlinear fantasy riding a song cycle. Whatever you call it, Nevermore is a compelling and fascinating theatrical experience filled with hauntingly beautiful songs and arresting images.

Local composer Matt Conner, for whom this is a first try at a musical, and playwright Grace Barnes took Poe's poetry and short stories as their starting point in crafting this 90-minute, non-stop swirl through the author's obsessions with the women who affected his life, played by Florence Lacey, Channez McQuay, Jacquelyn Piro, Lauren Williams, and Amy McWilliams. Conner's music, arranged and orchestrated by the great Jonathan Tunick, underscores much of the dialogue and helps to maintain the show's dreamlike ambiance. Characters are seen both in life and in death, in reality and in Poe's fevered dreams.

The biggest problem with Nevermore is that it needs a new opening. As it stands now, there's a sudden flash of lightning accompanied by a dissonant chord clash as Poe (Daniel Cooney) appears before us on Derek McLane's set, which may be taken as an homage to Tim Burton. Immediately, the tortured writer launches into a song titled "Alone," wallowing in his solitude. It's a little bit too much too fast, and it seems more histrionic than hypnotic. But by the time we get to the third song -- the Latin-themed "El Dorado," in which a whore (McWilliams) tries to bring solace to Poe -- we're warmed up enough to enjoy the show's undulating rhythms and become accustomed to Poe's deranged intensity. During the next few songs, the real world melts away and we lose ourselves in the man's long night of a life.

Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven," from which the musical's title comes, inspired the climactic song. Cooney's powerful voice is most expressive here, the words of the horrific poem spilling out in fits and starts, punctuated by bursts from the eight-piece orchestra and swelling to an anthem-like crescendo as Poe grieves over his losses; Schaeffer has left no space for applause in the show, but this song might have been a showstopper if he had done so. Again, it is McWilliams who offers a balm following the number by singing the lovely, poignant ballad "Dreamland" in which, seemingly alone among the women in Poe's life, her character comprehends that the darkness in his life can be exquisite.

Along the way, McQuay is skeptical as Poe's aunt, while Williams exudes youthful exuberance and frank sexuality as his young cousin/wife, Virginia. (She actually masturbates to Poe's poetry!) Piro, her head bald, is the writer's first love, Elmira; she is startling in the intimacy she projects as the two lovers try for something approaching normalcy. Lacey is Poe's mother, whose mocking presence unsettled the poet even in death. Still, she does try to soothe him with the lullaby "Evening Star" and joins him for the finale, "Dreams." In that number, Cooney sings "I have been happy in a dream" as Poe finally accepts his life as the unique experience it has been and prepares to slip away. It's not a happy ending, but certainly a moving one.