YALE REP OPENS WITH ORIGINAL MUSICAL
By Tom Holehan
Does lightning strike twice? Last season Yale Repertory Theatre won critical raves and awards for its original musical, “Pop!”, an unlikely concoction based on the attempted murder of Andy Warhol. Now they have opened their new season with an even stranger candidate for musical adaptation: Shirley Jackson’s dark classic, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”. Sadly, the atmospheric conditions at Yale are not repeated this go-round.
Shirley Jackson, who is also the author of “The Haunting of Hill House” and her signature work, “The Lottery”, explores the gray soul of humanity once again in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”. Published in 1962, the novel explores the inner lives of a pair of sisters on their own in a gloomy Vermont mansion with only their wheelchair-bound uncle to care for. The rest of the family was murdered while dining one evening on fresh berries sprinkled with arsenic. Apparently Constance, the elder sister, was accused but then acquitted of the ghoulish crime. Since that time she has been housebound with her younger sister, Mary Katherine, who makes weekly trips for groceries where she has to endure small-minded town gossip about her family. When the girls’ poor cousin, Julian, comes to visit and gradually becomes closer to Constance, his true motives become suspect by Mary Katherine.
This Gothic chamber tale does not lend itself smoothly for musical treatment and the book and lyrics by Adam Bock with music and lyrics by Todd Almond are discordant enough to make even Stephen Sondheim wince. All of it ultimately sounds like it is being played in the same minor key and repetition sets in quickly. There is little that is memorable or soars in the mediocre score and, even those unfamiliar with the novel’s big revelation, won’t find it much of a surprise.
While there’s little to praise in the music and book, under the skilled direction of Anne Kauffman the Yale production could not ask for better talent at its helm. The sisters, played by Jenn Gambatese (miles from her recent turn as Annie Oakley in Goodspeed’s “Annie Get Your Gun”) and Alexandra Socha are strong vocalists bringing great poignancy and real feeling to their haunting roles. Sean Palmer, as their charismatic cousin, has the vocal chops and leading man looks to make you wish he had a better vehicle to drive. Bill Buell lays on the crazy uncle routine a tad too much, but at least he’s entertaining in the process. A strong ensemble takes on the various dead relatives and idle townspeople with compelling purpose.
David Zinn has designed a striking two-story set with handsome furnishings that move smoothly into place for scene changes while Ilona Somogyi’s costuming makes smart visual distinctions between the regality of the ancestors and the present day characters. The lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound by Tony Smolenski IV is especially effective for a fire sequence late in the musical.
As an original work commissioned by Yale this is an admirable effort with outstanding performances, but the end result is flat, undistinguished and rarely as moving as it should be.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” continues at the University Theatre, 222 York Street in New Haven through October 9th. For further information or ticket information call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
The review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on 9.29.10.