Nevermore: The end of the attitude that musicals are crap!

by Johnny K

As the actors of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe dove into the first song of the night, the hushed – yet surprised nonetheless – words “oh no! This is going to be a musical?!” fell out from between my lips. Put bluntly, musicals have just never been my cup of tea. Filled with bad over-acting, endless dancing and hokey tunes that I’d never listen to in any other context, musicals have usually felt somewhat forced and contrived to me. Call me a realist but honestly, when tragedy strikes, who the hell actually sings and dances about it? Nevertheless, since the lighting, costumes, and general ambience had already captured my interest, I figured I should at least give it a chance.

… and thank Poe I did.

Scott Shpeley in Nevermore —The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. Photo by Sean McLennan.

What followed over the course of the next two hours was a phantasmagorical foray into the twisted macabre that, apparently, was Edgar Allen Poe’s life. With tragedy on top of cruelness on top of heartbreak on top of misfortune, it’s no wonder his works were as demented as they were. Here, however, it is his real life story (or at least a very exaggerated re-write of it) that is played out for all of us to see, with Poe himself depicted as the kind of madman that he otherwise usually wrote about.

Part musical, part narration, it is obvious that the writing of Nevermore takes its cue from the style and writing of Poe himself – with many direct quotes from the actual works thrown in for good measure. The entire drama unfolds on an extremely basic stage with eight sliding screen doors and a minimalist approach to props and set design; ironically, this made it one of the most captivating visual experiences I’ve seen in a theatre. Through the intricate use of lighting and shadows, all attention becomes focused on the actors, dressed in abstract Gothic clothing that may as well have come directly from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Enormous, wire-framed hoop skirts, knee-high leather boots, angular hats preposterously stretched out in opposing directions – the synergy of all these, along with the haunting music, myriad of sound effects and our very own imaginations – served to create a degree of atmosphere that no static set would ever come close to matching.

The cast of Nevermore —The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. Photo by Sean McLennan.

As for the actors, every single one of them brings something fresh, exciting and often just plain odd to this stylized, technically gifted production. With Scott Shpeley in the gloomy title role effectively looking very much like a deer caught in headlights, we get the feeling that Poe is just as much a shocked observer as we are of the disturbing “dream within a dream” that is his life. The other talented cast members, with their own often hilariously exaggerated movements, powerful singing voices, and personal brands of eccentricity, also keep the audience sucked in. As there is very little direct dialogue between the characters here, we follow along through the songs and, especially, through the larger-than-life choreographed miming that is always filling the stage. The effect is such that at times it feels as though we are watching marionettes, rather than actual people, twisting and swinging on stage. Add to all this the songs of Jonathon Christenson – who, by the way, also happens to take credits for writer and director – often building into intense climaxes as choruses of harmonies seamlessly blend together with the action on stage, and you’ve got one hell of a warped, weird and, ultimately, wonderful production.

Perhaps I just might give musicals another chance…

Arts Club’s Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is playing at the Granville Island Stage until February 6th.

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