nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 17, 2008
The past hangs heavily over Usher, the new musical based on Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. This is as it should be. Any adaptation of this Gothic classic worth its proverbial salt needs at least a heaping teaspoon of the Past not to mention added servings of Decay, Sickness, and Death.
On that front, Usher, with music by Sarah Hirsch, book and lyrics by Molly Fox, and directed by Becca Wolff, dishes out generous portions: ghosts of dead relatives speak to the characters through their portraits or loiter threateningly around the action; a bottle of poison intended for one of the main characters, Madeline, is passed playfully over and around her beloved, James, who is desperately trying to save her; and there is the crumbling mansion, the eponymous House in which this all takes place, signified by the transformation of the portraits into the basement tombs where all will finally rest. Throw in a dash of deceit, a pinch of possible incest, and stir in some sinister manipulations and you have yourself a House Poe would be proud of.
The production does a nice job with their source material. It lays out each scene in a clean and episodic manner. Plot points and themes are clearly established. Characters are introduced in a way that lets you know who they are and where they fit into the stratified world. Melissa Mizelli's lighting design bathes the stage with requisite gloom, creating a space full of shadows and silhouettes that never allow any character to be fully revealed. Timothy Mackabee's set design pares the set down to the absolutely necessary, dispensing with the ostentatious. The set pieces are a bit too pretty to suggest a decomposing house but Mackabee has built a set that plays well against the enormity of the playing space. The space overwhelms everything that happens in it, effectively conveying the impression that the characters are dealing with forces much larger and stronger than they are capable of dealing with.
In a strange bit of irony though, the cleanliness of their storytelling eliminates the element of surprise and the production's ability to make its mysteries more palpable. Because they don't hide certain ingredients of the story, it loses the ability to stay ahead of the audience. The characters' thoughts are never that far from the tips of their tongues but the book and lyrics don't create the necessary tension between the words and the haunting perplexities running through the House.
Fans of Edgar Allen Poe might walk away from the production feeling slightly let down but there are still theatrical treasures to be found. The show opens with a clever scene in James's studio as he paints two unruly portraits. Anyone who's ever spent long periods of time creating anything will appreciate the terse and helpless banter between the artist and his creations not to mention the comical tensions between the creations themselves. The first meeting between James and Madeline and their subsequent reunion in the House of Usher result in two songs, "Take My Hand" and "I Might Have Taken You Dancing," that elevate the material beyond the intended gloom and act as counterpoints to the inevitable despair.