Gadabout Ghosts Haunt SJ Rep's 'Winchester'
09/13/2009 - San Jose, Ca
CHAD JONES (The Oakland Tribune) - SARAH WINCHESTER sees dead people.
And she sings to them, dances with them and helps them skitter off into a version of heaven that looks like a cross between Las Vegas and a 1980s music video.
That's just some of the ghostly action in the world-premiere musical "The Haunting of Winchester" at San Jose Repertory Theatre, a show that dares to mix songs and story with a popular San Jose tourist attraction.
Yes, the Winchester Mystery House is now a musical. And here's the thing: it's not half bad.
You might even say Act 1 is refreshing and surprising. The book by Mary Bracken Phillips speculates that the reason Sarah Winchester, widow of the Winchester Rifle heir, kept adding on to her monstrosity of a house had to do with accommodating all the ghosts of people killed by her husband's guns.
Chief among these victims is an outlaw named Jack Kerrigan, who intends to haunt the bejeebers out of poor ol' Sarah. But Jack is burdened with his own ghosts -- all victims of his gunslinging.
There's a welcome comic tone to much of Act 1 as we see what an inept ghost Kerrigan is and what a motley crew of ghosts surrounds him. Even Sarah, with all her eccentricities, is a delight.
The sense of fun is reflected in the score with music by Craig Bohmler (conducting the six-piece orchestra) and lyrics by Phillips.
A beautiful early ballad, "When All of the Loving Is Over," gives way to lively, Western-tinged tunes like "Adding On," "When I Died," "Honest Man" and "Perfect Partners."
Tamra Hayden as Sarah has a lustrous soprano, though her arch acting seems like an artifact from an operetta.
Dan Sharkey as Kerrigan brings bracing energy to the part of the villainous gunfighter who, despite his best efforts, develops a soft spot for the Winchester widow. He's got a big, warm voice that he shows off in numbers like "Kerrigan's Curse" and "A Peak in Wyoming."
The real star of the show -- and the person the musical ends up being about -- is the ghost of an 11- year-old girl named Marisa, played by the extraordinary Lizzi Jones, a 12-year-old from American Canyon.
Most of Jones' scenes are with Sharkey's Kerrigan, and the two actors have tremendous rapport. Jones' sharp comic skills and her piercing, vibrant voice are even more amazing when you consider that for much of her performance she's dangling from wires and flying across the stage (excellent flying effects by ZFX Inc.).
Director Michael Butler (aided by choreographer Cassie Beck, who also plays the ghost of a murdered prostitute) has the daunting task of moving his actors around William Bloodgood's set, which attempts to re-create three stories of the
labyrinthine Winchester house. The results are impressive, with stairs that go nowhere, doors that open over steep drops and otherwise nonsensical architecture. The whole thing looks a little like an M.C. Escher drawing.
To get some illusion of movement on the hulking set, Butler has the ghosts wielding doorways on wheels, which is a little too flashy for this otherwise rustic affair.
Most of the fun ends in Act 2 after the ghosts -- Beck, Mark Farrell, Victor Ballesteros, Jesse Quinn VanAntwerp, Michael Dalager, Ren Reynolds and David Curley -- sing the amusing "Worst Day Since Yesterday."
It seems by the second half that Bohmler and Phillips have exhausted their musical palette. The tone begins to resemble "The Secret Garden" (another ghost-infused musical), and the plot takes a turn right out of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."
By the end of the 21/2-hour show, the storytelling has become blurred. Sarah, seemingly the subject of the musical, becomes merely a medium to get the trapped ghosts out of purgatory and into heaven (all marquee lights and white drapes).
Kerrigan and Marisa are left to finish the show, which should be more moving than it is as Kerrigan sings "Lord, Take This Child," an aria that bears more than a passing resemblance to "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables."
When it's not derivative or dirge-y, "The Haunting of Winchester" is fun, and with some Act 2 revision, the musical could stand more than a ghost of a chance of having a future beyond the South Bay.
You can e-mail Chad Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (925) 416-4853.