I must admit that I went to NEVERMORE at the behest of my husband and that, for the first few minutes, I thought I was watching the sort of parody of Off-Broadway experimental musicals one saw in movies a generation ago. A group of actors in bizarre make-up and costumes sang a weird, tuneless song while performing strange quasi-choreography. Part of me wanted to laugh while another part dreaded the next two hours. Very quickly I got sucked into the world of this almost through sung, constantly rhymed fictional biography of the brilliant, doomed 19th century poet and fiction writer.
On one hand, NEVERMORE offers a straighforward, simplified, fictionalized biography of Poe from birth to death. However, it presents this story in a style befitting Poe's writings.The show is insistently metatheatrical. Poe's mother as an actress and his life began in the theatre. It is also constantly bizarre, almost haunted, a perfect analogue for Poe's haunted, obsessive imagination. His world is constantly colored by disease, particularly tuberculosis, and death. The writer is always impoverished and becomes an alcoholic. Six actors surround Poe and play the various men and women in his life while also serving as narrators and chorus. There are also some quite scary puppets. One feels the insistence of rhyme and metre in the speech and songs, analogous to the insistence of these qualities in Poe's verse. Some of the ballads are haunting and beautiful. If you are willing to surrender to this show, as I was after a few minutes, it is a totally absorbing experience.
NEVERMORE came out of a small theatre in the Canadian Rockies and many of the performers have been with the show since its birth. The show's author-composer-lyricist, Jonathan Christenson, also directs the fluid, dreamlike production (choreography by Laura Krewski). The bizarre costumes and simple sets were designed by Bretta Gerecke. Scott Shpeley gives a powerful performance as Edgar. He has an expressive face and a slightly creepy high singing voice and is magnetic in this demanding role. It's the kind of performance that used to launch a career.
One would hope that there is a place for an excellent, truly original theatre piece like NEVERMORE. Alas, the show is doing very poor business. Perhaps the show should have been mounted by one of the non-profits rather than attempt a commercial run in the large, impersonal auditorium at New World Stages. NEVERMORE is one in a string of commercial musicals that have foundered recently. The original, inventive IF/THEN eeked through a year thanks to Idina Menzel's celebrity. The excellent THE LAST SHIP failed commercially even after Sting joined the cast. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, with a gorgeous score and two knockout star performances by Kelli O'Hara and Stephen Pasquale, failed at the box office. The enjoyable, well reviewed, if far too loud HONEYMOON IN VEGAS isn't doing well, nor is the brilliant revival of ON THE TOWN. If audiences aren't willing to be adventurous, what chance is there for the future of the musical beyond Disney-like kiddie shows? Sad.
NEVERMORE. New World Stages. February 13, 2015.