J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fringe ’09: Fall of the House of Usher

Madness, consumption, and premature burial are familiar topics to Poe scholars, but not typical musical theater motifs. However, FringeNYC is now officially underway, offering patrons an opportunity to see a plethora of fresh new shows, including Brent Cirves’s musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

In addition to the ill-fated Roderick and Madeline Usher, Annabel Lee, the beautiful subject of Poe’s final poem who indeed died tragically young, also plays an important role in Cirves’s book. She is now part of the reclusive Usher household—Roderick’s common law wife to be exact. Though she charms their visitor, one William Reed, a wayfaring musician Roderick befriended, her constitution is alarmingly weak.

Still, in a clear departure from the source story, the House of Usher initially appears to be a reasonably healthy environment, as recalled in flashbacks by Reed on the anniversary of those fateful events. Annabel Lee and the Usher siblings all seem like friendly, musically talented young people. Yet when the poetically foretold tragedies start to strike, the Usher family’s deep psychological pathologies begin to manifest themselves.

Despite taking liberties with the Usher text, Cirves’s clever book should intrigue Poe fans, compellingly integrating Annabel Lee, both as a character and setting elements of the classic poem to music. Indeed, the frequently recurring “Annabel Lee” motif is quite haunting, in a bittersweet way. Cirves’s original lyrics are also quite memorable, evoking the fleetingness of love and beauty which preoccupied Poe’s verse. They are effectively complimented by Mike Johnson’s music, suggesting the sort of love ballads and folk shanties that would be the stock-in-trade of an itinerant 1830’s minstrel, like Reed. He also contributes some unsettling avant-gardish classical pieces to suggest the hubris and madness of Roderick Usher.

All four cast principles have pleasing voices which sound well suited to the Poe-inspired lyrics. Carolyn and Mary Myers give particularly impressive vocal turns as Annabel Lee and Madeline Usher, respectively. As Reed, Mark Rascati smoothly handles the expository duties and also displays a nice touch on the acoustic guitar. They are accompanied by a sympathetic pit band, including pianist Simon Sun and flutist Rachelle Hunt, who capably synch the mimed on-stage performances.

Usher is a smartly conceived mélange of the Poe canon that is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level. Though the gothic spirit of the story remains, becoming especially pronounced in the second act, it is the elegiac tone of Poe’s poem that truly predominates in this staging. It is one of the more satisfying adaptations of classic genre fiction to be produced on the New York stage in recent months. Now open, it runs at the Connelly Theater through August 19th as part of Fringe Fest.

(Photo: Michael Johnson)

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