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Reviews/Musical Theatre

Fancy a Poe-etic musical?

3 December 2021

By all accounts Edgar Allan Poe’s life was as lugubrious as his poems and short stories. Will a musical based on his life be as heavy on les miserables? David Zampatti finds out.

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Grey Lantern Theatre ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 1 December 2021 ·

Have you noticed the unprecedented swarms of ravens cawing and scavenging roadkill and our sulo bins this year? Something’s afoot.

It’s probably climate change, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a cunning publicity stunt for Grey Lantern Theatre’s Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s short season at the Subiaco Arts Centre this week.

It’s a musical written and composed by Jonathan Christenson in Edmonton, Canada, no doubt upon some midnights dreary of that city’s freezing winters, that has enjoyed a little success and a smattering of awards since first staged in 2009.

A man with black eye make up stands holding an enormous open book
The cast of Nevermore give impressive performances. Pictured are Cal Silberstein and Zac Bennet-McPhee Photo supplied

It follows the distressing life of the American poet and short story writer with reasonable fealty, and leaves the exact circumstances of his death as uncertain as they were in reality.

There was much death in poor Edgar’s life: his mother, his wife and maybe Poe himself, succumbed to tuberculosis; his affectionate foster mother to suicide and foster father to heart failure. Christenson’s text goes to town on these and other other calamities.

The story is told mainly in song, and always in verse, mirroring, when it isn’t actually using, Poe’s own peculiar style, the heightened feverish doggerel that has made him wildly popular.

Christenson’s music is heavy on choruses, with few, and entirely unmemorable solos, which suits the vocal strengths, and minimizes the weaknesses, of the cast. The seven-piece band, led by keyboardist Maddison Moulin, is very tight if lacking a little in spark.

The same could be said of the dance numbers, choreographed by Anita Lawrence. The cast is extremely well-drilled, Lawrence’s placement is precise, and if the overall effect is a tad robotic, that suits the nature of the piece well.

There’s something Weimar cabaret about the whole enterprise (directed by Lorna Mackie), and that’s amplified by Therese Cruise’s black-and-white costuming and the chalky, eye-lined, gash-mouthed makeup that makes the cast look like a gang of understudies to Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret who’ve absconded from the set.

Having said that, the performances are impressive: Cal Silberstein is suitably hapless in the face of the vicissitudes piled up on him, and Erin Craddock has a particularly nice touch as the love of Poe’s life, Elmira (as it turns out, the heartless story of their forced estrangement by her bastard of a father is entirely based on fact).

Charlotte Louise, as Poe’s mother Eliza and in the ensemble, is the most striking of the runaway Joel Greys. Arianne Wescott-King works between Poe’s sister Rosalie, wife Sissy and foster mother Fanny with nice character distinction.

The blokes, Zac Bennett as Poe’s brother Henry and Daniel Burton as his foster father Jock Allan are suitably Brobdingnagian, and Simon Brett fits in tidily as the occasional narrator of proceedings.

All in all, this production is of a piece with its material – it’s nicely done, there’s some good talent on show, but it lacks the personality and emotional force that is also missing from the work.

Nevermore runs until December 4 at the Subiaco Arts Centre.

Pictured top: Daniel Burton and Arianne Westcott-King from ‘Nevermore’. Photo supplied

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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