Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is turned into a musical with good songs and imaginative concepts, but it suffers from poor staging.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
No, it's not a play about the R&B singer. Molly Fox's Usher is a musical re-imagining of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, as performed by Yale University students. In the story, the “narrator” receives a letter from an old childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who complains of an illness and asks for a comforting visit. In Usher, the narrator is an amateur painter named James Cleary (Casey Breves), and he is invited to not only visit Usher (Ben Wexler), but to paint his portrait for the family’s collection.
The show does a great job of bringing Poe's story to life with singing paintings (Usher family members encased in multi-purpose “frames”), and enhances the macabre original with some creative and grisly details of its own. However, the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts is poorly equipped to handle Melissa Mizell’s lighting design (far too dim), and director Becca Wolff doesn't capitalize on the large stage. For instance, placing the opening scene between Roderick and his sister Madeline (Claudia Rosenthal) in a small, upstage area diverts the attention of the audience.
When space was not a factor, Wolff staged some scenes very creatively: a flashback into Cleary and Madeline's almost-romance is appropriately nostalgic and “closing the curtains” when there are no windows onstage is done imaginatively. The competent singers, with Breves as a passionate and earnest standout, lack projection. And even with a live, 8-person orchestra, the music is not loud enough. Despite the silly choreography of “Evil in Our Blood,” it is the best of many good songs in Act One because the lyrics and the arrangement really bring out Poe's darkness. “Water and Gruel,”Act Two's best, brings out the fun and playful side of the actors because of its witty wordplay. On a limited Fringe budget, Timothy R. Mackabee's scene design and Melissa Trn's costumes are right on target. Although Usher's staging needs to be improved, the quality of the adaptation and the heart of the performers compensates for the lack in technicality.
Usher (2 hours with intermission)
The Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts (13 Spruce Street)
Tickets: $15. www.fringenyc.org
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