Black Button Eyes Productions is currently staging the Chicago premiere of the musical NEVERMORE – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, a version of the life of the world-renowned American writer, through January 28th, 2018 at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago.
NEVERMORE, with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Christenson, directed by Ed Rutherford with music direction by Nick Sula and choreography by Derek Van Barham, stars Kevin Webb as Edgar Allan Poe and features Megan DeLay, Jessica Lauren Fisher, Ryan Lanning, Matt McNabb, Maiko Terazawa and Jeremy Trager.
The production team for NEVERMORE includes: Jeremy Hollis (scenic design, technical director) Beth Laske-Miller (costume design), Liz Cooper (lighting design), Robert Hornbostel (sound design), Rachelle “Rocky” Kolecke (props/puppet design) and Hazel McCabe-Flowers (stage manager).
The performance, well sung, stylishly designed, dressed with clever costumes and enhanced by engaging puppets is laced with campy self-mockery and kitschy macabre gestures. The humor sounds, however, all in one note; this operatic musical riffs on the tragically sad facts of Poe’s life with an effort to transmute those awful details into fodder for his poems. The song “Israfel” is the best example; it’s sung by Webb, made up to look uncannily like Edgar Allen, with real pathos and gives us a strong hint of the genius poet to come. Most of the time, though, Webb as Poe mopes and cowers in fear of his personal demons, while the rest of the cast parade archly about the set.
The text, largely sung-through, begins with the announcement that this is a story of “mystery and horror…and unrelenting woe”. While the highly stylized portrayals are intriguing at first, they soon begin- like the events themselves- to pall.
The first act opens with the terminally ill Poe, who is seen languishing in bed before the other characters assemble. He is approached by a band of smirking minstrels on board ship. They begin by relating/acting out a soap-opera semblance of the life of Poe’s mother, Eliza, a travelling actress wedded to lawyer David Poe. At some point, David decides to adopt his wife’s choice of career; failure renders him alcoholic, and Eliza’s maid delivers and helps her raise the 3 kids. Edgar is the middle child; all 3 are painted with the brush of weirdness, and when dad deserts, and mom perishes from tuberculosis and depression, the family is split up. Edgar’s next home is with the Allen family, who fostered only Edgar of the 3 Poe siblings. The strange (what a surprise) husband was blind in one eye, and mean; his wife ultimately was hospitalized in an insane asylum where she committed suicide, but not before interrupting Edgar in torturing a kitten- he’d learned this from his schoolmates, who slew mice.
All of these events- and more- took place in the first act-first hour; they are followed by another jam-packed barrage of catastrophe after the intermission. We are forced to experience Poe’s rejection from his first love, his failure at University, his marriage to his pubescent cousin, who became the heroine of “Annabel Lee” was, her death from tuberculosis, the death of his brother from-what else- tuberculosis, etc. etc.
Amid a spate of poetry declaiming and problems with a rumormongering publisher, Edgar succumbs to – we presume- the karmic epidemic, and what a relief it was to come to the end of this oddball parody, an inexplicably simpering and ghoulish send-up, despite it’s well-done stagecraft.
Tickets: $30. Tickets are currently available at nevermorechicago.brownpapertickets.com. Tickets may also be purchased in person beginning one hour prior to each performance
All photos by Cole Simon