Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin in Nevermore
(© David Cooper)
Garett Ross and Vanessa Sabourin in Nevermore
(© David Cooper)
Stories of death, cruelty, and betrayal fill Jonathan Christenson's consistently engaging Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. And yet, not one of Poe's macabre tales or poems is enacted in this startling, beautiful and haunting musical-theater piece. Instead, the creepiness -- and sadness -- of the production comes from the author's biography itself.

The show begins ominously as a dour tune plays, sounding as if it's coming from a slightly menacing music box. Theatergoers soon learn of the twists and turns of Poe's life, where both childhood and adulthood prove equally cruel to the man (brought movingly to life by Scott Shpeley). And in Christenson's vision of this biography, theatergoers feel the man's pain acutely.

The author's life story is related almost entirely in narration and descriptive song, with only snippets of dialogue exchanged between the characters. Christenson's libretto manages to capture the meter of Poe's verse. At times, Christenson's work is exceedingly clever, such as this verse describing how Poe's older brother Henry (Sheldon Elter), looked after his young siblings: "So each morning Edgar and wee Rosalie/Were awoken by Henry's sweet mug!/And each night it was he who tucked them in/Snug as two bugs in a rug!"

At others, Christenson almost seems to channel Kurt Cobain in his writing. After Henry dies following a brief reunion with his brother in adulthood, one character sings: "One more death in a life full of woe,/One more reason for him to return to the grave:/Edgar Allan Poe."

And while Christenson's work as a writer flags during the second act, when the rhymes seem to become forced and unconvincing, his invention as a composer renews itself throughout. The diverse melodies in the show draw upon such greats as Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel for inspiration, while also referencing simpler tunes of the 19th Century.

The versatile ensemble (multiply cast except for Shpeley as Poe) brings a chilled whimsy to the characters they play, which makes each loss Poe suffers seem all the more heartbreaking. For instance, Beth Graham's songlike trills as Poe's foster mother Fanny Allan seem particularly sunny in his very dark life. Similarly, the goofiness that Elter brings to his portrayal of Henry is equally welcome. Then, of course there are the darker influences, particularly Poe's stern foster father (played with spooky New England sternness by Garrett Ross).

The piece unfolds in front of a series of eight opaque panels (production design by Bretta Gerecke) stenciled with a nineteenth century wallpaper pattern, which simultaneously evoke the staid homes in which the characters would have lived, and give the piece an eerie dreamlike feel, as apparitions, such as a coffin that glows a sickly yellow, materialize behind them. Gerecke's costumes look as if they might have been designed by Edward Gorey for some sort of Teutonic vaudeville (an open hooped skirt that looks like a giant spider web attached to one actress' waist is exceptionally memorable), and her lighting design, filled with cool blues, harsh whites, and green-yellows, has a sculptural quality that proves both beautiful and discomfiting, often literally isolating Poe in a world of all-too-real horrors.