It ends as it begins. In silence. An unnerving calm as a lone woman ponders the remnants of a house long ago locked and draped in the cozy white of sheets that say life no longer bustles here.
Funny things, white sheets. So pure and clean. Innocent, almost. Fresh, yet evocative in their innocuous state, lazily masking the latent ghosts that haunt our past. And, sometimes our present. Bly House is full of them—sheets and ghosts—in Creative Cauldron’s musical world premiere of The Turn of the Screw based on Henry James’ grand, gothic Victorian novella. It’s a celebrated psychological thriller that Writers/Directors Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith have now fashioned into a stylishly layered and captivating must-see musical for new and old fans alike.
Oh, and that score they’ve added? Tunes that are toe-tapping-catchy and moody in equal measure.
James’ Screw has been dissected, done, and redone—presented as an opera, a ballet, a play, and a couple of films with continuous commentary since 1898 (!), it’s original publication. Musical might not be the first forum that comes to mind for weaving such dark subject matter into a palatable meal, but it works wonderfully, especially with a script that balances suspense with a bit of humor.
Miss Giddens (Susan Derry), a young governess, embarks on her first job as warden for two young charges. Flora (Libby Brooke) and Miles (Ethan Miller), wealthy and recently orphaned and whose absentee Uncle-as-Guardian prefers not to be bothered with their upbringing, appear normal—jovial in their youth and doted upon by the housekeeper, Ms. Grose (Sherri L. Edelen). Miss Giddens is, at first, smitten with the children and the grandeur of their country estate—Bly House—until she begins to see things.
Or did she? The apparitions of a pair of fallen lovers—her predecessor, Miss Jessel (Caitlin Shea), and a former house servant, Quint (Ryan Sellers)—stalk her as Ms. Grose discloses, piece-by-piece, their demise and eventual deaths.
It’s intrigue at its best: an insinuated (but never seen nor confirmed) crime, a (supposed) bloody lovers’ quarrel, and an (apparent) suicide dive into the water-of-no-return. But what of the children, eye-witnesses to (and potential actors in) the tragedies that befell their beloved caretakers? And, Miss Giddens. Poor Miss Giddens.
What’s she to make of the whole of it if she can ever work out the puzzling story in full, something only possible with Miles’ mysterious return from boarding school, from which he’s been expelled for unspeakable wickedness. PTSD or possession? We’ll never really know.
James’ genius, skillfully executed by a tremendous cast and crew, is in creating a sinister ambiguousness that begs for audience conjecture without being infuriating. It’s a ghost story made with thought and demanding of it. That it still sends chills up one’s spine isn’t surprising. But that music!
Again, nothing unexpected about pairing a (sometimes) shrill violin, an (often) mournful cello, and the (always) melodic piano to create an ominous ambiance, but the mood hangs in the air like a fine fog, sticking with you even if the actual melodies don’t. Melodies that are, strangely, full of levity in moments, mirroring the labyrinthine story and interjecting it with both dashes of fun and heavy doses of drama at all the right turns. Its decadent, lush even. Throw in beautiful voices (Derry, Edelen, and Shea in particular) and clever lyrics, and you’ll been wondering about the house “High on a Hill” all day.
The music also stands in for narration as Miss Giddens sings about her days, and eventual fears, while writing letter to a friend back home. We watch her unravel. And in her final letter, her wits are frayed.
Then, she sits in Bly House; alone with Miles, hair a mess, she confronts the boy, hoping to finally unlock the mystery haunting her.
Derry is there— in that moment just before mania, when calm and composure take every effort and thinly veil a bubbling neurosis. She’s the friend you know not to ask a favor of or stranger on the bus you know not to sit next to. And, she’s going to snap. It’s a brilliant place to find as an actor, and Derry does it with aplomb.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Jan 30 – Feb 22
Creative Cauldron at
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA 22046
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Sellers with his devilish, sexy lothario, Quint, and Shea as his reluctant mistress, Miss Jessel, carry all the mystery ghosts need while Edelen provides Ms. Grose with the only heart not yet fully lost to fear. Libby Brooke as Flora shines in her interactions with Miles.
Smart staging—everything doubles up in some way—with lots of levels and the shadowy lighting one expects of a drafty old house hiding secrets add to a script adroitly brought to life. And a script packed with some playful nods to its’ self—“Oh, it’s a classic struggle between good and evil, Miss,” Miles tells Miss Giddens as he and Flora stage a puppet show shortly before he’s left alone with a governess who’s about to go off the deep end.
And then, it ends as it begins. But nothing is the same. A fresh death hangs in the air, and it sounds like the buzzy, white noise of emptiness.
Smart, moving, amazing: The Turn of the Screw.
The Turn of the Screw: A World Premiere Musical. Book by Stephen Gregory Smith; Music by Matt Conner; Lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner . Featuring Susan Derry, Sherri L. Edelen, Ethan Miller, Libby Brooke, Ryan Sellers, Caitlin Shea . Scenic and Costume Designer: Margie Jersis . Lighting Designer: John Sami . Musical Director/Piano: Alvin Smithson . Music Supervisor: Warren Freeman . Violin: Jeff Thurston . Cello: Aaron Rider . Orchestrator: Christopher Youstra . Stage Manager: Dani Stoller, assisted by Charlotte Chewning . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.