OGDEN — It is rare that you get to hear the words, “world premiere musical,” in Utah, but I have heard those words a lot this season. I was very excited when I learned that Weber State Theatre would be presenting the world premiere of The House of Edgar Allan Poe, with a book and music by Morgan Hollingsworth and directed by Andrew Barratt Lewis. The show uses the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe as lyrics to help chronicle the last hours of the life of Poe’s wife, Virginia, and sends the audience through a mix of memories, fact, fiction, mourning, grief, and the difficulties of understanding the differences between reality and that which haunts us in our heads.
As I walked into the theater, the set, designed by student designer Alina Cannon, represents the small cottage Poe lived in with his wife but is also full of representation of the various works of Poe, from Virginia Poe’s cat in the corner to the Pallas Athena from the The Raven to the heart from the The Tell-Tale Heart and so much more. Part of me wished I could have just sat there for a few hours and examined the set.
On the evening that I attended, I was fortunate enough to have a talk back with the writer, director, and students, at which I found out that the creative team was mostly made up of students, including the lighting designer Daniel Garner, sound designer Korey Lamb, hair and make-up designer Kierian Lockwood, properties designer Victoria Wood, and dramaturg Sam Rust. I found myself converted to the process of utilizing a University theatre department to produce a new work. Each of these students got an amazing opportunity to work with a new work and have a truly creative process where they were the first to put their stamp onto a piece of work, While the show is still a work in progress not without its flaws, I was impressed by the high level of artistic inspiration and devotion the entire team put into the project. From the heartbeats that Lamb inserted throughout the show to the different levels of lighting that matched the moods to the fantastic costume for character Sarah Elmira Shelton, (played by Eliza Haynie) that had my daughter and I talking about all the way to the car, there was no question that the passion that Hollingsworth put into his writing was transferred to everyone that got to participate in this production.
Christian Clarke as the title character had the difficult task of playing a character known as a man famous for some of the most intelligent yet haunting writing of our time. With one foot in reality and one foot in insanity, Clarke as Poe managed to grasp well the balance of what it is like to deal with loss, pain, and confusion with increasing occurrence, and how that can change perception. The stable conviction of the character of Shelton, played by Haynie, was a beautiful contrast, and both actors managed this juxtaposition well. Miranda Wells as an ailing Virginia Clemm Poe added an element of sympathy and concern while the ensemble and supporting roles who played other important characters as well as “the voices” representing the thoughts and different levels of reality for Poe were intriguing both in the writing and delivery of this piece. I commend both Lewis’s direction and the movement and dialect coaching of Tracy Callahan for making this production believable and mysterious without moving into campy and too fantastical.
The music and orchestrations have a great deal of potential, and during the talk back with Hollingsworth, he stated that this performance was the first time the show had been fully orchestrated. Knowing this fact, it is understandable that some of the songs were less memorable than others and that I think the orchestrations represent the part that needs the most fine tuning. This criticism is not a reflection on the fine job done by conductor Kenneth Plain nor his team. Any time a new work is presented live for the first time, there will be kinks to work out, and I believe Hollingsworth will be able to fine-tune and make a spectacular show moving forward.
The House of Edgar Allan Poe runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. I found the final five minutes to be an artistic masterpiece that I will not spoil but is unquestionably worth the price of admission. For those who have only read The Raven or for those who know more about the troubled story of Poe, this show is a haunting and impressive tale. What is more, while I am surely a fan of attending familiar theater, it is so encouraging to get strong new works in the Utah theater community. I hope we can continue to fill the audiences of the daring companies like Weber State University—a company that has professors like Lewis who chose to partner with writers like Hollingsworth and who chose to give students one of the best theatrical educations a production can provide.