The things that go bump in the night are a pretty gooey lot in Ghost Quartet.
Ghost Quartet. Music, Lyrics, and Text by Dave Malloy. Developed and arranged by Ghost Quartet. Directed by Annie Tippe. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at Oberon, Cambridge, MA, through September 12.
By Bill Marx
With two Obie Awards, the Richard Rodgers Award, and a Jonathan Larson Grant under his belt, Dave Malloy is thought by some to be the future of the American musical. Judging by Ghost Quartet, that means we have a brave new era of amiable recycling to look forward to. There is something ’80s and ’90s about this likable enough cabaret entertainment. An avuncular narrator keeps the proceedings friendly, mild audience participation is encouraged (we are invited to bang on drums and are offered a sip of whiskey or cider), and an inscrutable though resonate storyline (in this case a yarn about ghosts) serves as the clothesline on which are pinned a series of generally whitebreadish and derivative tunes — whiffs of Sondheim, tin-whistle ballads, and plenty of percussion-driven call-and-response ditties designed to keep the toes a-tappin’. The spirit of Thelonious Monk shows up, but the afterlife seems to have drained all of the juicy idiosyncrasy out of his brilliantly dissident music. Hell is being prettied up for the piano lounge.
The other things that go bump in the night are a pretty gooey lot in Ghost Quartet. The two female singers, Brittian Ashford and Gelsey Bell, play sister ghosts and/or imaginary friends and/or undeadings named Roxie and Rose. Scheherazade and Dunyazad also show up. Are they archetypes, storytellers, victims, killers, specters? Who knows? How does a dysfunctional family and a strange photography store fix into the macabre picture? Identities jump about from song to song, which means that there is not much emotional heft to this show — who is run over by a runaway subway car? Why should we care? And there are no scary poltergeist inspired moments — the comforting, easy-listening music, with one or two exceptions, isn’t very spooky or disorientating. In fact, the most frightening moment in the evening for me came when I had to deal with the somewhat surly security guard on my way into Oberon. He announced that before I entered he had to search my backpack for “bottles of water or guns.” Fears of terrorism and lost bar sales combine.
All this said, the group Ghost Quartet features some strong voices, particularly Bell, and agile playing. Cellist Brent Arnold is a versatile magician, pulling out one string instrument after another to strum or pick. (Though I did miss a fiddle.) Composer Dave Malloy is a spiffy piano player. And there is an intriguing coup de theatre: one section of the show is played in complete darkness — the lights are turned off. The interlude isn’t all that eerie, but the blackout encourages you to concentrate on the wonderfully rich sounds of the group’s voices. For me, the most effective songs were those that didn’t take the death theme all that seriously, such as “Any Kind of Dead Person” — Malloy’s lyrics are at their best when they are playful rather than attempting to be earnest or philosophical. My favorite lyric was about a train driving though somebody’s heart. I think it was mean seriously — but I am not sure.
With its plush rug and chandelier-festooned set, Ghost Quartet is about reassurance rather than disturbance — and it succeeds as a pleasant evening that proffers a collection of familiar-sounding tunes performed by superior musicians. But really, must death be so bland?
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.