(Review by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
Doctuh Mistuh Productions is Austin’s home to offbeat musicals that frequently deal in satire, sacrilege, and sarcasm. With their latest offering, however, they tread in different territory.
“Nevermore, the Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe” (playing through Nov. 5 at Austin Playhouse) is a dark, operatic portrayal of the life story of the famed American writer, focusing largely on his childhood and the influences that went into his immortal literary creations. With book, lyrics, and music by Jonathan Christenson, originally created for/with Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, the text of “Nevermore” is very much in the vein of Stephen Sondheim, a fluid, kinetic rush from scene to scene, and song to song, with refrains that intertwine between dramatic moments and musical numbers.
The visual style of “Nevermore,” however, is pure Tim Burton. Director Michael McKinley, costume designer Glenda Wolfe, and set/prop designer Teresa Carson (with Mike Toner), affectively lift a visual vocabulary straight from Burton’s greatest hits (particularly Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd) to bring Poe’s story to life in the most gothic way possible. This sensibility works well with Christenson’s music, which has certain tonal similarities to Danny Elfman’s music, which frequently serves as the musical backdrop to Burton’s work.
The show’s music is not always the catchiest, but it tends to be more focused on intricate rhyme schemes, reminiscent of Poe’s own rhythmic meter, than it is on creating memorable tunes. The music and lyrics work together marvelously well in this way, perhaps most powerfully during an adaptation of Poe’s “The Raven” (with some refrains from his possibly related poem, “Lenore”) into a dream-like musical number.
The characters who populate Poe’s life story—his family members, lovers, and business associates/rivals—are broadly drawn, and purposely so. They are represented by a company of six players who, upon meeting Poe on a steamer ship, relate to the writer his own life’s story. As such, they float in and out of character, and we recognize them in specific roles through details of costuming and through their outsized personality traits and vocal inflections.
McKelvey’s cast of players is phenomenally gifted, and they each pull off multiple characters with aplomb. Poe, portrayed with grace and poignancy by Tyler Jones, remains the one constant throughout all of this, frequently standing still (or being pulled to and fro) amongst the rapid movements and dreamlike dancing of the players.
“Nevermore” is a stylized exploration of Edgar Allen Poe, mixing fact with fiction (some of it Poe’s own) to create a dark, gothic, evocative musical that brings both (telltale) heart and horror to the Halloween season.