Sunday, March 22, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe at New World Stages by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of “Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe” at New World Stages was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe
Written, Composed & Directed by Jonathan Christenson
Costume & Lighting Design by Bretta Gerecke
New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 3/19/15 at 8:00 p.m.

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe was written, composed and directed by Jonathan Christenson with costume and lighting design by Bretta Gerecke. It was originally produced in 2008 at the Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, eventually opening at the Barbican Centre in London (July, 2010) and the New Victory Theater in New York City (October, 2010). It continued to be produced in many theaters and film festivals throughout Canada before opening at New World Stages in New York City in January, 2015. In 2009, the musical won seven Sterling Awards (The Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award - Edmonton’s Theatrical Honors) including Outstanding Production of a Musical, Outstanding Director (Jonathan Christenson), Outstanding Costume Design (Bretta Gerecke), Outstanding Lighting Design (Bretta Gerecke), Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical (Jonathan Christenson & Wade Staples), Outstanding Musical Director (Jonathan Christenson) and Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction (Laura Krewski).

This compelling musical biography of the tragic life and death of Edgar Allan Poe is a unique storytelling experience. The elaborate costumes, mostly black and white, exude a Goth, Steampunk sensibility. In fact, New World Stages sponsors “Goth & Steampunk Thursdays” in conjunction with the musical so all audience members coming to the show dressed in Goth or Steampunk inspired clothing get a free drink ticket. Each show of Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe is becoming a bit of a happening with a growing number of loyal fans attending multiple performances. The night I attended, Denny Daniel of the Museum of Interesting Things was present before, during intermission, and after the show to interact with audience members and to show them some of the 19th century historical items he has in his collection.

As told in the first lines of this musical, this is a tale “of mystery and horror, and of unrelenting woe.” We find Edgar Allan Poe on a steamer from Richmond to New York City on which he meets a troupe of travelling players (or perhaps they were simply characters from his poems and stories who he dreamed about while in a drunken stupor) who offer to perform scenes from his life. What follows is an examination of his tortured and difficult life and how the darkness and loss he experienced may have influenced his writing. Not all the facts presented in this musical biography are accurate and many important, influential parts of his life were left out such as his time in the military, his work in New York City and his experiences at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Edgar Allan Poe, expertly and inspirationally played by Scott Shpeley, is portrayed as a deeply sensitive man, more influenced by the challenges of life than most but with an indomitable spirit, numbed when necessary with alcohol. However, the musical is so highly stylized that you never really get the opportunity to identify emotionally with any of the other characters portrayed during the various vignettes. You leave the musical wishing Edgar Allan Poe had experienced a better life than the one he did, filled with abandonment, death, madness and betrayal. Edgar Allan Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston on January 19, 1809. In reality, his father abandoned the family (including his brother William Henry Leonard Poe and Rosalie Poe) when he was only one-year-old. His mother died of consumption the next year. He was separated from his brother Henry and his sister Rosalie when Jock (John) and Fanny (Frances) Allan, a childless couple who were fans of his actress mom, agreed to become his foster parents. John Allan was a wealthy tobacco merchant who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Fanny, his foster mom and the only mother he knew, eventually went insane and was committed to an institution where she died. Elmira Royster, his first love to whom he was secretly engaged, married a richer man when he was away at college. His foster-father, who wanted Edgar to stop his gambling and drinking and be a businessman instead of a writer, cut him off financially (forcing him to drop out of the University of Virginia after only one semester) and eventually disinherited him. Both his older brother Henry and Virginia Clemm (his thirteen-year-old cousin and child bride) died at a young age of consumption. In the end,  Edgar Allan Poe, age 40, was found in a Public House in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, disoriented, delirious “in great distress and…in need of immediate assistance.” He was transferred to Washington Medical College. He never regained full consciousness and died on October 7, 1849. It was reported in the newspapers he died of “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation,” common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism.

The musical, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life & Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe features a very talented, energetic, professional ensemble cast in costumes with hoop skirts and high hats that evoke a Tim Burton style alternative universe. Every actor is Broadway quality with Broadway talent. Scott Shpeley as Edgar and Ryan Parker as Rufus Griswold were particularly impressive. Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke offer us a highly unique style of presenting a story that includes impressive anthropomorphized Ravens in full-body costumes. It is beautiful, inventive, moving, exquisite, haunting and yet, funny at times; a perfect balance of hope and despair. My favorite line from the musical was when fifteen-year-old Edgar and his first love Elmira were hanging out in a graveyard, their favorite place to meet. Edgar is staring at Elmira and she says, “you should draw a picture” (instead of “you should take a picture; it would last longer”). I highly recommend you see Nevermore while it is here in New York City. This musical is destined to become a cult classic. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, visit: 

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