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In its short history, the Encore Musical Theatre Company has found its hallmark in delivering classic crowd-pleasing musicals that draw entire families. Now at the dawn of its third year, the company is hungrily exploring the dark underbelly of the musical by supplementing its mainstage season with the Encore on the Edge series, featuring less-ubiquitous shows with adult themes. As a bold introduction to the series, co-founder Dan Cooney takes a double turn as director and star of Nevermore, a haunting interpretation of the life and tortured creativity of legendary horror writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Having developed and previously debuted the role off-Broadway, Cooney steps into Edgar’s spectrum of attitudes and life stages with confidence and deftness. Set in an apparent purgatory of the artist’s own making, the book by Grace Barnes dives into the writer’s romantic history with childhood love Elmira (Thalia Schramm) and child bride Virginia (Elizabeth Jaffe), as well as less forgiving discourse with his imagined late mother (Marlene Inman-Reilly) and with in-law/surrogate maternal figure Muddy (Sonja Marquis). His darker, carnal female pursuits are manifest in the Whore (Erin Donevan), who serves as a representative for Edgar’s many deviances, in particular his alcohol abuse and regretful emotional distance from the women who care for him. As the play’s single act unfolds, the bottomless unhappiness of Edgar’s life seems to be as much a product of his own addictive behaviors and mental demons as of the real and devastating tragedies that he blames for his extreme alienation and woe. This impression is in no small part attributable to Cooney’s slick performance, showing faces of childlike openness contrasted with deep, pure passion and pleading for connection the likes of which his macabre imagination cannot seem to withstand.

Composer Matt Conner sets Poe’s own words to music that wisely indulges in a handful of refrains, which blossom and morph into dazzling counterpoint. Music director Brian E. Buckner, who also leads the offstage trio of keyboard and strings, takes the cast through intricate several-part harmonies that are a highlight of the production. Of the five supporting roles, each actress gives a strong performance, but the most affecting are those most grounded in reality. Jaffe’s delightful and innocently titillated Virginia is achingly unforgettable even in death, and Schramm makes the doting but uncomprehending Elmira into more than a port in the storm, even as she offers the overwrought genius unparalleled security. As the only character not entirely swept up in Edgar’s talent and dark appeal, Marquis blends a foreboding deadpan with deeper grief as she loses her beloved child to what she knows will be a terrible union. In contrast, Inman-Reilly’s spectral character primarily serves to challenge Edgar on the themes of his life and perceived failings; the emotional heavy lifting is necessary, but not as inherently rewarding as the playing out of life events. Similarly, acting as a catch-all eager to conform to what her client expects of her, Donevan is a sensuous mystery, with intrigue to spare but without opportunity for elucidation.

This delightfully spooky production is permeated by a sense of dangerous dreariness that will resonate with readers of Poe, even in his most happy texts. Cooney emphasizes this by sending the various women to stalk around and lurk behind Steven V. Rice’s dire, angled skeleton of a set; the stylized pointedness of the characters’ movements is carried through into musical numbers sharply staged by Barb Cullen. Sound design by Jess Preville includes generous and creative use of thunderstorm ambience while ensuring the performers’ voices can be clearly heard. Both Colleen E. Meyer’s costumes and Schramm’s hair design have an extreme Gothic bent that fits in beautifully in the world of the play, so sinister it seems to discount the very existence of sunlight. Yet as accomplished and thorough as the haunted atmosphere is, it raises some minor drawbacks: first, the ominous lighting design by Rice depends too much on a single spotlight that sometimes darts clumsily around the space, and second, a few climactic moments emerge from the melancholy with a big melodramatic bent that is not entirely out of place, but cannot hold a candle to the outstanding prevailing mood of the show.

As a contemporary musical, Nevermore offers total immersion for fans of unsettling and disturbing fare and should be similarly pleasing to devotees of Poe’s works, which figure heavily into the show to its great benefit. Stunning music and production values are handily complemented by this cast of six, with direction that pulls script and mood together into a single, compelling vision. As an entry point into a new direction for the Encore, this production sets the theater on an exciting precipice, with a solid standard that leaves this viewer in eager anticipation of future installments.


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