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THEATER REVIEW Whisper House
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-01-21

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Playwright: Duncan Sheik ( music and lyrics ) and Kyle Jarrow ( book and lyrics )

At: Black Button Eyes Productions, the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875; A thenaeumTheatre.org; $30. Runs to: Feb. 15

Black Button Eyes Productions is on my "don't-miss" list due to the stylish imagination of its shows over the last few years. Still, not every production is equally successful—and Whisper House falls into the less impressive category.

Vocal and instrumental performances in this 90-minute musical are solid enough, but dramatic values are weak because it's not an effectively-written piece. It's a minor work by composer Duncan Sheik and book writer Kyle Jarrow, both of whom achieved considerable success with other collaborators.

Set in 1942, Whisper House concerns Christopher, an orphaned 10 year old sent to live with his aunt, a Maine lighthouse keeper who insists the boy call her "Miss Lily." Two narrators dressed in elegant evening clothes already have set up the mood, which is that lonely, emotionally-isolated people like Lily ( Kate Nawrocki ) and Christopher ( Leo Spiegel ) would be better off dead. The narrators, we learn, are ghosts of lovers torn apart who drowned in a wreck off the lighthouse rocks.

Complications arise when Yasuhiro ( Karmann Bajuyo ), a Japanese-American who has assisted Lily for two years and has developed feelings for her, is threatened with internment. Lily shields him, but Christopher—his father lost in the South Pacific—reports them to the local sheriff ( T. J. Anderson, who doubles on trumpet ).

Under musical director Micky York, the singing and playing are excellent. There are charming instrumental combinations of, say, bass clarinet and horn or reeds and harp, and the singing ghosts—played by Mikaela Sullivan and Black Button Eyes veteran Kevin Webb —drive the show along.

But the pleasant, jazz-influenced score isn't especially memorable, and Christopher and Yasuhiro hardly sing a note. The entire cast is only six people so they all need to carry some musical weight. In addition, much of the music and lyrics describe situations or past history rather than expressing the emotions or desires of the characters. Time is spent on the ghosts' backstory although they don't influence the story's outcome. Rule #1 of drama, remember, is "show us, don't tell us."

Beyond the music, the dramatic conflict is heavy-handed and the characters are not especially well-developed. The racist sheriff is a bludgeon and Christopher is a child without charm. The actors don't have a lot with which to work, and director Ed Rutherford can't fill in the missing pieces.

There's a good scenic design in the intimate studio theater by Nikolaj Sorensen, who combines a semi-abstract seascape with a false proscenium arch to create a space for the band in back—as if they were in the ocean—and the rough-hewn lighthouse interior in front.

Like other Black Button Eyes shows, Whisper House is stylishly executed but may be for diehard Duncan Sheik fans.


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