One might have thought that a ten-year-old show with libretto by Kyle Jarrow (author of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, seen in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre in the late 2000s, as well as Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants) and a score by Duncan Sheik (composer of the landmark rock musical Spring Awakening) would have been snapped up by some Chicago theater long before now. But it’s taken a decade for the Sheik-Jarrow Whisper House, which received its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2010, to make its way here. Well, better late than never.
Presented in an intimate staging by director Ed Rutherford for Black Button Eyes Productions, Whisper House is at once spooky and sweet, whimsical and macabre, ironic and touching. Recalling a cartoon tale by illustrator Edward Gorey, it’s the story of 11-year-old Christopher (Leo Spiegel), who is sent to live with his reclusive, crippled aunt Lily (Kate Nawrocki) after his father (Lily’s older brother) is killed in action during World War II and his mother is committed to an asylum following a mental breakdown. Lily lives in a lighthouse on the foggy coast of Maine, all alone except for her Japanese handyman, Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo)—and for two ghosts (Kevin Webb and Mikaela Sullivan), spirits of a couple killed in a shipwreck 20 years earlier.
Though Lily does her best to ignore the phantoms who haunt her, Christopher is susceptible to their mischievous, and maybe malevolent, intentions. When a German U-boat is spotted offshore, the local sheriff (T.J. Anderson) warns Lily that Yasuhiro faces arrest as an enemy alien. The situation forces vulnerable Christopher to make choices that will alter the lives of himself and all around him. Under these circumstances, maybe—as the ghosts sing in the score’s opening song—Christopher and lonely Lily would both be “better off dead.”
Sheik’s songs, melodic and rhythmically catchy in an alternative-country-rock vein, are mostly sung by the specters, who function as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action while influencing the characters in ambiguous ways. This means that Christopher, the protagonist, does not express his emotional growth through music as one would usually expect in a musical. Happily, Spiegel—making his professional debut as Christopher—is an expressive and polished young performer who makes the audience genuinely interested in his moral struggle. v