As the first plaintive notes of a violin shiver across the darkened stage, it is overwhelmingly evident that this is one story made to be set to music. Molly Fox’s ’08 new musical rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” brings the eerie tale to life in a hauntingly natural way. It begs the question: Why has no one done it like this before?
“Usher,” which is Fox’s senior theater studies project, has been in development since September — and the time has been well spent. After working on the libretto for a class, Fox’s interest was piqued by the decidedly theatrical nature of Rodrick Usher’s (Ben Wexler ’11) instability, and she decided to spend the entirety of her senior year creating “Usher.” The show has the smooth flare of a professional musical — an impressive achievement for an entirely student-made creation. Accompanied by music written by Sarah Hirsch ’09, the performance at times struggles to live up to the promise of its script, but there can be no doubt that “Usher” is a striking achievement.
The musical tells the classic tale of introverted painter James Cleary (Casey Breves ’09), whose lonely and mundane existence as a master painter’s “eraser” is disrupted by a telegram from his childhood friend, Rodrick Usher. Rodrick, who is dying from a strange illness that makes all his senses fatally hypersensitive, begs James to come paint his portrait to hang in the hall of his ancestors. James agrees, but soon finds that all is not as it seems in the House of Usher. He discovers that his lifelong love and Rodrick’s sister, the infirm Madeleine Usher (Claudia Rosenthal ’08), is secreted away in another wing of the house. As James investigates, he begins to uncover the dark secrets of the Usher family and the growing hysteria — and possibly insanity — that engulfs the line’s last living heirs.
While Fox has updated the Victorian tale for modern audiences, she still manages to preserve the creepy tone of the original. This is in great part due to the skillful use of song and music to dramatize the plot, taking advantage of unconventional — if not unfamiliar — theatrical devices. Singing portraits play a major role in the show’s narration, functioning as a modern, less-intrusive Greek chorus. They first appear in James’s studio, taunting him for his solitary existence (and showcasing the formidable vocal talents of Rachel Cohen ’09 and Christina Avellan ’10). Later, in the House of Usher, the paintings of the deceased family members provide surreal narration and entertaining insight into the strangeness of subsequent events.
The highlights of the show are the expertly written duets, in which two characters often spar vocally in overlapping parts. Rosenthal, whose voice as Madeleine is overly delicate on stage, shines particularly in her duets with Breves as she attempts to draw out the somewhat nerdy, shy James. The two are especially charming in the scene where Madeleine convinces workaholic James to play hooky and accompany her to the beach, an outing they keep secret from overly protective Rodrick. Wexler is also timid in his solo parts, but he overpowers the stage in the sinister number “Evil in Our Blood,” performed along with the spirits of Ushers past. These collaborative songs are what make the chilling subject matter so powerful — there is the sense that beyond the overly theatrical lifestyle of the Ushers is a depravity that is all too human.
The musical accompaniment is essential to creating this uneasy sensation, and it is unusually professional. Led by orchestrator and co-music director Stephen Feigenbaum ’11, the live six-person orchestra provides apt and poignant accompaniment. Though it occasionally overwhelms the un-microphoned cast, the beautiful music composes the show’s haunting soul. Even without words, the orchestra could tell Poe’s tale with astonishing accuracy, and part of the joy of watching “Usher” is listening to the heart-wrenching score.
At the end of the show, it is hard to believe that a team of undergraduates wrote, directed, produced and performed “Usher” — it has all the hallmarks of an ascendant, professional musical. Maybe it hasn’t been done before, but hopefully it will be done again.