'Nevermore': The Poignant Song of The Raven

At left, Daniel Cooney as Edgar Allan Poe and Jacquelyn Piro as Elmira, his first love, in
At left, Daniel Cooney as Edgar Allan Poe and Jacquelyn Piro as Elmira, his first love, in "Nevermore"; above, with Lauren Williams as his doomed child-bride, Virginia; and at right, with Amy McWilliams as a prostitute. (Photos By Carol Pratt -- Signature Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

You might not envision Edgar Allan Poe's painstaking masterwork "The Raven" as boffo material for a contemporary show tune. Well, envision again.

Set to a driving melody by an unsung composer, the poem lends a fever-dream urgency to "Nevermore," Signature Theatre's entrancing new musical based on Poe's life and literary output.

Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer took a chance on Matt Conner, a 36-year-old actor-composer with a modest résumé and an ambitious idea about how to make Poe's rhymes sing. The gambit largely pays off. Poe's work has been used as a source of musical inspiration before, but here, the poems serve as the basis for a journey through Poe's own psychic decline. It's a dreamscape of a musical set in a writer's fugue state.

Although his writing established Poe as a father of the modern detective story and a timeless voice of the macabre, the show is neither straightforward biography nor faithful adaptation. Anyone expecting a spooky-tuneful house of horrors a la "The Phantom of the Opera" will leave disappointed. The Poe of "Nevermore" is himself a haunted object. What the creative team of Conner, Schaeffer and book writer Grace Barnes conceive is a free-floating, psychological postmortem of the man as revealed through his powerfully sensual relationships with words and, just as vitally, with women.

Many elements coalesce to Schaeffer's advantage in this production, the last the troupe's founding artistic director is to stage in Signature's trademark garage space in an industrial area of Arlington (the company will move this year to two new theaters in the heart of Shirlington Village). Conner's romantic music, at times ablaze with feeling, is orchestrated by the great Jonathan Tunick. Rarely is the underscoring in a musical so central to its success. The haze-shrouded set by Derek McLane, with its eerie, twisty woodlands, and the spectral, baroque gowns by Jenn Miller marvelously evoke the surreal terrain of Poe's hallucinatory images and rhythms.

The production is carried aloft, too, on some potent performances, especially that of Daniel Cooney as Poe in the grips of a withering existential illness. He's a creature who lives in darkness. Mark Lanks's moody lighting ensures that we view Poe -- whose life remains awash in murkiness -- as a man of shadowy circumstances. And Cooney's virile vocals help us see the poems as the cries of a passionate, if troubled, heart.

Florence Lacey, playing Poe's mother (who died when he was a boy), Lauren Williams as his doomed child-bride, Virginia, and Jacquelyn Piro as his first love, Elmira, provide incisive portraits of the women over whom Poe obsesses. They are joined by two other strong actresses -- Channez McQuay as Virginia's mother and Amy McWilliams as an all-purpose lady of the night -- to form a kind of ethereal Freudian chorus, appealing at times to Poe's superego, at others to his id.

The show's 90 minutes pass in a hypnotic whirl. The only major problems are some muddy interludes and transitions that render a few scenes indecipherable. That is particularly true of the evening's final phase. After the stirring rendition of "The Raven," you might feel as if intelligibility flies the coop. It appears there's a message of uplift in the finale, based on Poe's "Dreams" ("I have been happy, tho' in a dream," he wrote), but I wouldn't swear to it: Poe dies, Poe rises after death, Poe smiles at his equally dead mother. To Poe scholars, those scenes might be self-explanatory. To me, it felt as if the writers simply didn't know how to end the show.

Some fog, though, is inevitably going to enter the forecast. Making Poe's poetry the lyrics of a musical -- even an art house musical such as this -- is never going to be a perfect fit. It's hard enough constructing a book around the existing songs of a contemporary pop group such as Abba. Although Poe suggested at times that some of the poems were autobiographical, the score of "Nevermore" never is intended to carry much of the story. Its purpose instead is to intensify mood and embroider emotion.

Poe's emotional instability -- he married Virginia when she was 13 -- proves an intriguing, if cerebral, musical subject. Such territory is far more fertile than it was in the treatment of Vincent van Gogh in "The Highest Yellow," Signature's last musical dealing with deranged artistic temperament. You get a much finer feel for the turmoil of an artist in "Nevermore," whose thesis is that Poe was scarred by the loss of a mother who died when he was little more than a toddler. "You miss your idea of me," the mother's ghost explains to the writer.

The death -- or Poe's idea, at least, of the death -- triggers a lifelong quest to fill a searing vacuum. The musical's most cohesive and involving arc concerns the deeply disturbing marriage to Virginia, portrayed here as sexually aroused by the grotesquerie of Poe's storytelling. (The show includes references to such Gothic tales as "The Cask of Amontillado.") As suffering inspired Poe, so do the dark events of his life seem to move Conner: Virginia's death at a tender age inspires some of the most fervent musical settings of Poe's poems, including "Annabel Lee" and, especially, a wrenching version of "To My Mother."

Poe's women, in a style vaguely reminiscent of the ghostly showgirls in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," float on and off the stage -- and in and out of Poe's consciousness, provoking him, vying for his affection, denouncing his retreat into gruesome imaginings. The cruelty and foreboding in his stories, it seems, replicate the torment of the man. "Do you think you can escape life by scribbling fantasies?" one of them demands to know.

"Nevermore" does not attempt to solve the riddle of Poe's turbulent life and ever-present demons. What it does provide is a musical landscape on which to feel his pain. How can a show begin to convey such complexity? Quoth the critic: "Nifty score."

Nevermore, music by Matt Conner, book by Grace Barnes and lyrics adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Sound, Tony Angelini; music director, Jenny Cartney. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Signature Theatre. 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Call 800-955-5566 or visit .

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