It would be an absolute shock for me to hear if anybody reading this has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe. The macabre master of American Romanticism is commonly known to have lived a harsh life filled with confusion, betrayal, alcoholism, and the deaths of many loved ones. Fitting misery for such dark tales. Whether it’s The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, or otherwise, everyone has read or at least heard one of Poe’s tales or poems at one time or another. His influence on Western literature is undeniable, and it’s only fair for us to ask how such tales came about.
In the vein of other staged, semi-comedic, biographical tales such as Bloody Andrew Jackson, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe by Jonathan Christenson is (if the title somehow doesn’t tip you off) an admittedly liberal retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s life from his birth to his death.
As an ensemble piece, Nevermore’s cast and design can be defined by one word, ‘versatility.’ Save for Tyler Jones (Edgar Allan Poe), the cast plays multiple roles each that range from major characters to passing, background roles. Admittedly, I was concerned at first about whether the cast would be able to differentiate their roles enough to keep the narrative coherent. Thankfully they achieved that in no small part due to Glenda Wolfe’s gorgeous, Gothic costume designs. Clad mostly in an exquisite black and white ensemble, the cast’s costumes immediately set the tone in both Poe’s macabre style as well as an almost campy, Tim Burton-y darkness. Each new character of import was given a costume that maintained a consistent visual theme for the production while differentiating enough to allow instant audience recognition. To continue with the theme of versatility, set designers Teresa Carson and Mike Toner paired their set down to a few simple, mobile platforms and walls (all of which stylized to appear as gravestones engraved with writing) that allowed for the scenes to shift to other “locations” with ease. It’s very much up to the audience to fill in many of the gaps themselves, but the effect is not lost given that they rest of the designers (and of course the cast) keep the mind occupied.
As for the cast, they were strong as a single ensemble, but had their occasional faults as individual performers. Jones as Poe leads with a mighty performance as the macabre, world-weary side of Poe, the young, innocent, and desperate artist, and as the lighthearted idealist. Given the fluctuating tone of Nevermore it’s expected that the cast be able to both capture the serious and comedic elements of their characters, and Jones does both magnificently (and let’s not forget his lovely singing voice either). As for the Players (the rest of the cast) let’s go in numerical order. Stephen Mercantel and Matt Connely (Players 1 and 2 respectively) are easily two of the more noticeable figures onstage who lend their talents to the ensemble easily. The trouble though is that their talents complement one another. Mercantel is a lovely singer, but his seldom spoken roles left me wanting. Vice versa, Connely as his spoken characters was grandiose, bombastic, and hilarious, but his singing voice paled when compared to the rest of the cast. Joey Banks (Player 3), similarly to Jones, maintained a strong balance between spoken and melodic quality, and added suitable charm to any scene in which he was prominent. Jessica Hughes (Player 4) was a constant delight to have onstage, often stealing the scenes with natural charisma and showmanship. Suzanne Balling (Player 5) easily owns my favorite voice in the production, weaving beautiful verses with every song she accompanies. And finally, Megan Rabuse (Player 6) falls into a similar category as Mercantel in that I enjoyed her vocal performances quite a lot, but the spoken moments, particularly her depiction of Elmira Royster, felt a tad dry. All in all, the ensemble is solid, each with their own talents and proficiencies that earned my praise and applause.
However, despite the solid cast and crew behind Nevermore, there is one troublesome issue with Christenson’s script, especially for a musical. The songs are completely forgettable. Sure, that sounds like a petty gripe, but the script and score are composed in such a manner as to maintain a nearly seamless narrative throughout each act, rarely giving the audience a chance to stop, breathe, and applaud. Granted, this isn’t to say that musical numbers themselves were not enjoyable at time of viewing. Thinking back on them I remember Jones’ solo in Israfelas well as the cast’s performance of A Dream within a Dream were two of the better sequences in the show, but I can’t recall exactly how they sounded or why I liked them. Simply that they were good. The most memorable song in the whole production is (not surprisingly) The Raven which uses the text from Poe’s original text of The Raven as the lyrics, thus lending the strength of one of the world’s most famous pieces of poetry to the song. My other main issue with the script came in the form of a conflict of tone. True, I applauded the cast’s ability to manage both the serious and comedic elements of Nevermore, but that being said one wonders why there was such a disparity between the two tones to begin with. While most of the production maintains a bizarre lightheartedness throughout, the occasional truly dreadful moments feel less like dramatic beats and more like jarring interjections. And when paired with the aforementioned, seamless blending of songs to scenes with nary a pause there is rarely the opportunity to adjust from the lighter to the darker moments and vice versa. Though the script is not without merit. The nightmare sequences are delightfully horrifying retellings of Poe’s work, all of which Michael McKelvey (director) successfully staged to maintain the integrity of the original texts’ tones. They easily made up the most memorable, and enjoyable sequences in the production.
Nevermore is a bit of a grab bag. On one hand, I love the performances and designs that went into creating the production, but the script is overlong, disjointed, and lacking in tonal integrity. Without wishing to spoil anything, Christenson drops a healthy dose of magical realism near the end of the script that jarringly comes out of nowhere. McKelvey and his cast/crew should feel proud of the production they have created; it’s a legitimately solid piece of theatre. I only wished they had chosen a better script to throw their talents behind.
Doctuh Mistuh Productions’ Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe continues playing at The Austin Playhouse from Wednesday the 26th to Saturday the 29th at 8pm, Sunday the 30th at 5pm, as well as Halloween and Thursday the 3rdthrough Saturday the 5th at 8pm.