How fitting that Creative Cauldron has chosen to revive an early success that fits perfectly with the darker aspects of the Halloween season. That brooding poet and spinner of fantastic tales Edgar Allan Poe is back, taking center stage in the chamber musical Nevermore.
Local performer, music director and composer Matt Conner penned the classically-flavored, modern score and Poe himself provided the basis for the lyrics, and portions of the book by Grace Barnes.
You may have caught this original musical when it premiered a dozen years ago at Signature Theatre, or when Creative Cauldron mounted the show in their intimate space in 2011, with Conner directing the piece, and artistic associate Margie Jervis designing the sets, costumes and props. Both Conner and Jervis have returned for this new rethinking of the musical, and their work provides a perfect, shadowy crucible to concoct a fever dream of images, memorable scenes, sordid episodes, and lyrical musings from the troubled life of the famous poet.
The tiny Falls Church home of Creative Cauldron has been fitted with a derelict sail boat, and littered with detriment from Poe’s rocky life – writing desks, liquor bottles, discarded scraps of writing and a seemingly endless supply of white, feather quill pens. These, along with the sumptuous period frocks for the ladies in Poe’s life, help set the scene in a period dreamscape that brings to mind a candlelit chamber where smoke swirls, gin is swilled, and pleasures of the flesh are explored.
Nevermore gives us the famous writer at the end of his life, surrounded by the ghosts – literal and figurative – of several women from his life. From his absent, actress mother, to his first love Elmira, to his child-bride Virginia, and a stand-in for the whores he frequented, these women form both a Greek chorus and Poe’s scene partners as the musical slips in and out of reality, and back and forth through time, to paint a portrait of Poe in various phases of his life.
closes October 28, 2018
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The fluidity of time works well throughout the musical’s nearly two hour running time, as well as the inclusion of portions of Poe’s most famous works, spoken and sung. Not all the tunes are hummable, take-home melodies, but the music sounds majestically dark under the able direction of Jenny Cartney and her small but skilled chamber orchestra. And as a source of lyrics, Poe’s poetry and prose provide an authentic libretto for the poet’s journey into darkness and madness.
The cast brings passion and clarity to the characters, starting with the well-sung and properly dark-souled performance of Stephen Gregory Smith as Edgar Allan Poe. With dark, slicked back hair, a black mustache, and dark circles under the eyes, Smith resembles photos and etchings of Poe. Aside from the look, Smith captures the essence of the hedonistic poet, a prisoner to his dreams and his addictions. Among the musical numbers, the song setting of Poe’s “The Raven” is particularly memorable as rendered by Smith.
The women in Poe’s life cover the gamut of whore, madonna, pure, matronly, and ideal, providing many sources of inspiration for the poet’s writing all the while haunting his mind and darkened soul.
Each of the female cast members bring lovely voices, and a distinctive presence to their respective roles. The Whore, as played by the sensual and earthy Mary Kate Brouillet, represents all the ladies of the evening Poe patronized, and figures prominently in his journey. Conner stages a memorable love scene between the poet and the Whore as an extension of Poe’s writing – a lasting tableau. By contrast, Erin Granfield portrays the intelligent and appreciative Elmira, Poe’s first real love, and one to which he returns too late in life. Together, Smith and Granfield perform the lovely duet, “Fairy Land,” the one time Poe can leave the dark recesses of his soul to dream of a land of light and love.
Providing contrast to the Whore is Poe’s other obsession, the teenager Virginia – captured by the winsome and dangerous portrayal by Sarah Hurley. Virginia is smitten with Edgar and revels in his tales of horror. Poe married Virginia when she was only 13 years old, much to her mother’s chagrin. Even with fleeting moments of happiness, Edgar and Virginia’s marriage was doomed by his addictions and her untimely demise. Virginia leads the cast in singing the song based on the tragic “Annabelle Lee.” Hurley brings out the child-bride’s wide-eyed joy of life as well as Virginia’s appetite for her husband’s stories of revenge and bloodshed, a potent combination.
Finally, two mother figures are prominent in Poe’s life, one present and one barely around. Jennifer Lyons Pagnard plays Muddy, Virginia’s mother, who Edgar feels drawn to, in spite of her objection to her daughter’s unusual relationship with Poe. Muddy serves as a voice of reason, even if Edgar ignores her concerns. As the mother he never really knew – as well as the one he wished he knew better – Katherine Riddle plays Eliza Poe, Edgar’s actress mother, stately and regal in appearance, yet distant and almost always absent to her son. She died many years before, but the dream of his mother and her presence as a muse and wished-for ideal fuels Poe’s writing. Truly, each of the women portrayed in Nevermore serve as both inspiration and foil for Poe.
Admittedly, some of the musicalized Poe pieces work better than others but the overall effect of the musical score is evocative of Poe’s personal demons and haunted personality. The performances of the chamber-sized cast breathe life into this story of one of America’s most enduring writers, and one that fits with the spirit of the season, quote the critic, ever more.