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Review: Whisper House Is an Intimate Musical Ghost Story

Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow's musical receives its long-awaited New York debut.

Molly Hager, Alex Boniello, and Samantha Mathis star in Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow's Whisper House, directed by Steve Cosson, for the Civilians at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Richard Termine)

Depending on your propensity to believe in the supernatural, a ghost could be a metaphor for lingering guilt or an actual spirit occupying the dark shadows of your home. But when that thing is ruining your sleep, does it matter if it's real? Composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and librettist Kyle Jarrow (SpongeBob SquarePants) cleverly leave that question up for debate in their haunting chamber musical Whisper House, which is finally making its New York debut after premiering at San Diego's Old Globe over a decade ago (Sheik and Jarrow conceived the project, which shares a name with Sheik's 2009 studio album, with Keith Powell). Performing under the banner of the Civilians, the show marks the grand reopening of 59E59 Theatres, which was beginning to feel like a ghost venue as it approached the two-year mark with no live performances.

Of course, the performance multiplex is not nearly as arresting as Alexander Dodge's spooky and ever-shifting set, which evocatively suggests the creaky lighthouse in which Whisper House takes place. Set in 1942 on the coast of Maine, it's about 12-year-old Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus), who is sent to live with his aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis) following the death of his father and the subsequent mental breakdown of his mother. Lily operates the lighthouse with her hired hand, Mr. Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi). When the local sheriff (Jeb Brown) relays that German U-Boats have been sighted in the waters nearby, the distant war suddenly feels very close. Old bigotries and new paranoia combine to cast a shadow of suspicion over the Japanese man living in a tower that overlooks the eastern seaboard.

Jeb Brown plays the sheriff, and Wyatt Cirbus plays Christopher in Whisper House at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Richard Termine)

Framing the story and leading it musically are two nihilist ghosts (Molly Hager and Alex Boniello) who inform us repeatedly that everyone in this story would be better off dead. Hager and Boniello combine musical virtuosity with an extremely unsettling stage presence (aided greatly by Linda Cho's washed-out period costume design). Like the White Stripes, we spend an uncomfortable amount of time wondering if they're siblings or lovers (no spoilers here). And like any great musical duo, they sell every number in Sheik and Jarrow's moody and beguiling score (both authors collaborated on lyrics).

Sheik and Jarrow occasionally trade coherence for gothic atmospherics, like in "The Ballad of Solomon Snell," which attempts to unpack important exposition while delivering a totally unrelated story, and which sent me running for the script as soon as the curtain fell.

Luckily, Steve Cosson's lucid direction keeps the story on track and makes us eager for more, like campers around a fire. Lighting designers Jorge Arroyo and Jeff Croiter create a world of shadows for this gloomy New England setting. Sound designer Ken Travis not only engineers pristine sound balance (a difficult thing to do when the orchestra is elevated on the side of the house), but he simulates the boom of a realistic naval skirmish. He also creates the eerie whispers that haunt our protagonists.

James Yaegashi, Samantha Mathis, Alex Boniello, and Molly Hager appear in Whisper House at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Richard Termine)

Across-the-board excellent performances flesh out the world of Whisper House. Mathis is formidable as Lily, with diction as bracing as a gust of wind off Penobscot Bay. Yaegashi gives a quietly powerful portrayal of an outsider (both in the US and Japan) who has settled in a new home and mostly wants to be left alone to live his life. For such people, moments of national hysteria are never pleasant.

Whisper House manages to combine a gorgeous musical, a satisfying ghost story, and a cautionary tale about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of ''public safety" (a message that is sadly as relevant as ever). Don't let this show be one of those theatrical ghosts you wish you had seen when you had the chance.