William Reed (Mark Rascati) gently serenades the audience with his melodious voice as the musical opens, only to bring them into a tale of darkness and insanity. Usher weaves together various Edgar Allen Poe pieces, adds well-written music, and guides viewers into the depths of some of Poe’s characters, resulting in a captivating musica l- a must-see for any fans of dark musical theatre.
Usher’s production not only delivers good writing (both the book and the music), but also a strong cast. Rascati entrances theatre-goers with his first phrases, soothing them right before he drags them into the hellish and haunted house of Usher. Upon arriving, we meet both Roderick Usher (C.J. Bergin) and Madeline Usher (Mary Myers), true to Poe’s original characters. Roderick displays an anxious nature by being a bit too intense, yet oddly cheerful, and Madeline juxtaposes his energy with a more uninviting and acerbic style, which later morphs into insanity. At first, Myers seems a bit too caustic, yet this fades as she slowly reveals her character’s growing lunacy. The three characters offer audience members a full range of energy and character traits; William Reed is mellow and curious, which plays well against both Madeline and Roderick. The fourth principle player, Annabel Lee (Carolyn Myers), a character from one of Poe’s poems by the same name, is a beautiful ingénue whom we can easily care for and empathize with.
The script is clearly well crafted, and it is obvious that many hours have gone into the research of Poe’s work and subsequent creation of Usher. Just as notable is the music, played by a charming pit complete with piano, violins, viola, cello, and flute. Composer Michael Johnson merges styles of “Romantic, atonal, folk and Broadway” (as quoted from his Composer’s Notes), resulting in a complex, yet easy-to-listen-to collection of songs.
One unique musical moment involves Roderick performing a newly created piece for his friends, in which actor C.J. Bergin completely enthralls the audience with the brilliancy of a madman while he paints a picture of what he dreams his symphony would sound like. Bergin terrifyingly throws himself full-on into his character, his eyes wide as he frighteningly fantasizes at the piano, while the pit band plays. There are no sung lyrics to the song, but the music itself only adds to the intense moment Roderick has, almost unaware that others are watching. While horrifyingly drawn into Bergin’s moment, I quickly broke away to scan the audience, and noticed that each eye in the sold-out crowd was glued to Bergin’s intensity. My attention was only interrupted briefly when the little girl next to me started crying – yes, Bergin and the music were that intense ( I think I held my breath during most of his episode. I don’t blame the kid).
The production is well directed, thanks to director/writer Brent Cirves. The playing space is a bit tight and awkward, with seating on three sides of the stage, but Cirves stages the play so as to optimize the area he has, paying close attention to where his actors are focused. The transitions between scenes are swift and flawless, moving the musical along at a steady pace.
Poe would be proud of this Gothic musical, true to his original style. It intertwines great literature, a thorough script, intense music, and a strong cast. The combination is a tell-tale for success.
Based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe
Written by Brent Cirves
Music by Mike Johnson
Produced by Nu Sigma Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha
Reviewed by Caitlin DeMerlis