Arthur Acuna and Mare Winningham
in Whisper House
(© Craig Schwartz)
Arthur Acuna and Mare Winningham
in Whisper House
(© Craig Schwartz)
Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik and librettist Kyle Jarrow's musical Whisper House, now premiering at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, is an intriguing character study, a coming-of-age tale, and a ghost story all rolled into one. While the work has some significant flaws, in both conception and execution, the tale's unlikely elements are well blended, and director Peter Askin's clear and precise vision helps keep the audience enthralled throughout the 90-minute show.

The action, which is set in a haunted lighthouse on the coast of Maine in early 1942, begins when self-professed local curmudgeon and lighthouse keeper Miss Lilly (a believable and ultimately touching Mare Winningham) greets her young nephew Christopher (A.J. Foggiano), who has come to stay with her against his will for at least a month. His Army pilot father was recently killed in action in the South Pacific and his mother is recovering from the resulting nervous breakdown. His inquisitiveness and her lack of maternal instincts give their relationship a cold and prickly edge.

Lilly's helper at the lighthouse, Mr. Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna, delivering a thoughtful, layered character), is a Japanese man who has been in her employ for three years. Because of his father's death at the hands of the Japanese, Christopher takes an immediate dislike to Yasuhiro. The local sheriff (Ted Koch) and a Coast Guard lieutenant (Kevin Hoffmann, providing comic relief) also want Yasuhiro gone from the coastal lighthouse for security reasons.

Adding to Christopher's distrust and confusion are the two resident ghosts (David Poe and Holly Brook) whom only he can see -- although the others are often bothered by their poltergeist pranks. The ghosts are part of a yacht party that drowned off the coast because Lilly's drunken father forgot to light the beacon on a long ago Halloween night. The action comes to a thunderous conclusion when a German U-boat is sighted off the coast and the Navy arrives to bomb them. Christopher comes of age by banishing his fear of the ghosts and coming to recognize the budding relationship between Lilly and Yasuhiro.

The technical aspects of the production are top-drawer. Michael Schweikardt's multi-level lighthouse set creates a marvelous backdrop for the action, aided immensely by Aaron Rhyne's projection design. Matthew Richards has provided ghostly lighting filtered through plenty of fog. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is most effective. Musical director Jason Hart and his six-piece on-stage band are evocatively dressed in tuxes, top hats, and ghostly white makeup.

Sheik's music is appropriately haunting and downright eerie at times, providing the proper atmosphere for the piece. The lyrics (by Sheik and Jarrow) could use some fine tuning. The best number in the show is "The Tale of Solomon Snell," which doesn't really advance the plot, but the ghostly bells do deliver the shivers. And the dialogue too often borders on sitcom chatter.

All of the songs are delivered by the two ghosts, who not only wear head mics but also sing into handheld mics (as in Sheik's Spring Awakening). Poe has a beguiling early Bob Dylanish quality to his voice and his vocals for the most part are pleasant. On the other hand, Brook plants her lips firmly on her handheld microphones, making the lyrics unintelligible -- a particularly big problem when her songs are providing exposition.

Still, there's enough promise in Whisper House that Sheik might have another hit musical on his hands.