Know Theatre’s 2018-19 season opens with Whisper House, a truly spooky and wonderfully satisfying AltRock chamber musical. With music and lyrics by the Tony-winning composer of Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik, and book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, the Tony-nominated bookwriter of SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical, Whisper House is a heartbreaker, a toe tapper and a scary good time.
In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. Shocked and furious, the U.S. immediately declared war on Japan. Within a few months, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese-Americans; more than 100,000 were forced from their homes and incarcerated. Set after Pearl Harbor and just before FDR’s executive order, Whisper House picks up with 11-year-old Christopher, played by Andrew Ramos. Christopher has lost both of his parents: his father’s fighter plane was shot down over the Pacific and his mother, overcome with grief, was committed to an asylum.
Alone, Christopher is sent to stay with his father’s estranged sister, Aunt Lily, played by Kelly Mengelkoch. A salty spinster with dark secrets, Lily ekes out a living on the rocky coast of Maine where, with the help of Yasuhiro, played by Adam Tran, she manages a rickety old lighthouse and bickers with the local law enforcement, played by Brant Russell. Though Lily insists that nothing in the lighthouse goes bump in the night, Christopher feels the presence of two bitter ghosts, played by Erin Ward and Cary Davenport. When Lily reads in the paper that Yasuhiro must relocate to an internment camp, she entreats a combative and confused Christopher to help her hide him in the lighthouse, setting off a chain of events that will alter their lives.
Originally released in 2009 as a concept album by Sheik, Whisper House grew strong stage legs. The Rock & Roll score is a powerful backbone for the storyline and frequently doubles as a moody soundscape, just right for a piece set by a troubled sea. The ghosts that inhabit the lighthouse are eternally angry about their untimely end and haunt the lighthouse with merry malevolence, taking dark delight in the bad news plaguing the lighthouse’s corporeal inhabitants. As they roam the stage throughout much of the entire 90-minute production, Davenport and Ward perform most of the play’s songs, also playing guitar with Russell. Both are wonderful singers who pair well together and are accompanied by a strong band: Brandon Vitruls on drums, Kyle Lane on bass, James Allen on piano, Alex Strawn on trumpet, Anson Carroll on horn and Taylor Overholt on clarinet.
In some respects, Whisper House is simply a good old-fashioned ghost story: A sad child comes to stay with a curmudgeonly and reclusive family member living in a haunted house. Director Daniel Winters, together with scenic and lighting designer Andrew Hungerford and costume designer Noelle Johnston, make the most of the story’s bankable ghost story elements. Johnston has dressed Davenport and Ward in the sea-spoiled party clothes their ghosts died in, and Hungerford’s lighthouse, under a film of sea salt, is surrounded by darkness yet glows with an eerie, otherworldly light.
In its finest moments the show investigates loneliness, forgiveness and courage. Winters successfully conjures a menacing atmosphere, balancing the fear factor with the show’s soft, even endearing heart. Lily, though lonely and heartbroken, is kind and Mengelkoch renders her with warmth and spirit. Like his aunt, Christopher is himself lonely and heartbroken. Ramos’ portrayal is truly poignant: a scared little boy with a stiff upper lip and good intentions, determined to be an adult as soon as possible. Nephew and aunt struggle to understand each other across years of pain and loss, but the connection between Mengelkoch and Ramos is genuine, familiar and sweet. Tran’s Yasuhiro, Lily’s handyman who lives with her at the lighthouse, is a peaceful presence amid the ghosts’ furor, the family’s tension and Russell’s spot-on blustery, bullying cop. The heat between Lily and Yasuhiro is played with lovely restraint, allowing the longing between the characters to surface.
Well-sung, well-acted, creepily unnerving and appropriately substantive, Know Theatre’s Whisper House is an entertaining blend of haunting music and strong characters, shining bright and hopeful against the dark.
Whisper House plays through Aug. 19 at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). Tickets/more info: knowtheatre.com.