There’s one indisputable fact when it comes to Edgar Allan Poe: The 19th century American author was a literary genius whose works are still popular more than 170 years after his death. Ironically, however, it’s his death that may be his most compelling mystery – and it serves as the springboard for a rather haunting musical that opens the new Encore on the Edge series at Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre.
Not content to stage only musicals that are safe entertainment for young and old alike, The Encore has branched out to include a handful of shows each season that push the envelope, or may be aimed at theatergoers who like their musicals with less fluff and more adult content. Such a description certainly describes “Nevermore,” which received a rousing standing ovation from an appreciative crowd on opening night. But in case you think adult content equates to “f-bombs” tossed willy-nilly about the stage, you’re wrong. Instead, “Nevermore” is an intriguing look at the psyche of a man whose inner demons he could never tame.
In the book by Grace Barnes, those demons take the physical form of five influential women who haunt Poe throughout his life: the mother who died when Poe was only 2 years old; the first love of his life whose father prevented them from pursuing a relationship; his 13-year-old cousin who became his wife and muse; her mother who was suspicious of Poe’s intentions; and a hooker. They are first seen about 10 minutes before the musical begins, slowly haunting the dark, back areas of the stage. In and out they silently move about, one at a time or occasionally together, perfectly setting the tone of the production. And once the story begins to unfold, they become the cacophony of voices that fill Poe’s head.
Poe, as history notes, had a long history of alcohol abuse and opium use, and he frequented both gambling halls and prostitutes. Each took its toll on the man’s health and mental stability – and at the production’s opening, we meet Poe apparently in his last waking moments, stumbling along the streets of Baltimore where he falls and passes out. Then, in his delirium, significant moments of Poe’s past are reflected upon – which, as Poe’s mother’s suggests, leaves us wondering: If Poe wasn’t abandoned by his mother at such a young age, would we be celebrating his work a century and a half later? After all, she tells him, “If I had stayed, you would have nothing to write about.”
But she did – and the prolific author helped create the detective fiction genre and wrote such classic poems as “The Raven” (from which the show’s title was derived). In fact, snippets of Poe’s work seamlessly flow through the dialogue and lyrics. But never fear: One needn’t be familiar with his work to enjoy the show.
Rather, all you need is a ticket and 90 minutes to experience a thoroughly engaging night of theater.
The show’s heavy work falls to Dan Cooney, who both directs and tackles the role of Poe. Cooney – who first created the role in the world premiere production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia – fully invests himself in the character. Whether it’s the boy Edgar or the mentally unstable man several decades later, Cooney’s performance is perfect. Pay especially close attention to his hand gestures and facial tics; they help define the character’s state at whatever moment in time he finds himself.
Plus, he sings the heck out of the material!
Fine support is given by each of the women. Most notable is Marlene Inman-Reilly as Poe’s mother, who always shades her dialogue with the appropriate emotional punch – and whose voice matches Cooney’s in texture and tone.
One problem, though, occurs in the handful of numbers where all the characters sing different lyrics at the same time to different tunes; it’s tough to follow any one of them, and together it becomes incomprehensible noise. Plus, to be honest, none of the tunes by Matt Conner is particularly memorable.
The musical accompaniment under the direction of keyboardist Brian E. Buckner sounds much fuller than their size of three would indicate. Steven V. Rice’s set design – possibly Poe’s recollection of the home he shared briefly with his mother, but now in ruins – adds depth to the show, and his lighting often becomes the show’s seventh character. And the goth-like costumes by Colleen E. Meyer couldn’t be better.
So if you like your theater a little darker and a little more challenging, might I make a suggestion? To quote the raven, go see “Nevermore.”
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through March 20. $22. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org.