- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dedicated members of the TTT Club — those who like their men tall, thin and tortured — no doubt will flock to Signature Theatre’s delirious production of the world-premiere musical “Nevermore,” based on the writings and obsessions of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was the TTT mack daddy of them all, a tormented soul with burning eyes whose poems and short stories were twisted gateways into his fevered mind. He wrote opium dreams that did not bring on transcendence, but a sense of unease and menace. His fiction was written in the racing rhythms of the nightmare; his poetry was lush and delicately disturbing.

Poe’s personal and literary excesses are the stuff of grand opera. His drinking, gambling, philandering and drug-taking made him notorious in his own time — but his marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Clemm (who died of tuberculosis a few years later), assured his berth as the quintessential doomed, possessed romantic.

His life and his mysterious death after being found semiconscious in a gutter in Baltimore in 1849 have mystified and intrigued critics for more than a century.

So it seems fitting that Poe would become the inspiration for a musical, this time in a new work by Matt Conner that uses Poe’s poetry as the lyrics for a nonlinear song-cycle directed by Eric Schaeffer with equal parts Grand Guignol and Hammer studios horror movie.

Mr. Schaeffer and set designer Derek McLane clearly were influenced by the films of Tim Burton and have created a “Corpse Bride” of a set, a deliciously murky violet-and-black space full of chairs submerged like sunken graves and gnarled tree limbs that look like spectral arms reaching out to ensnare the living.

Jenn Miller’s sexy costumes combine period corsets and flowing skirts with such modern strumpet touches as dominatrix boots, fishnet stockings and slits up to there.

The poems “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “To My Mother,” “Evening Star” and “Eldorado” form the basis for Mr. Conner’s fervent, excitable examination of the women who influenced and haunted Poe’s dreams and waking life.

“Nevermore” takes place as Poe is dying, and he is visited by a Greek chorus of women who are at once harpies and saviors, starting with his Mother (Florence Lacey), a character actress who died when he was a child. The other women include Muddy (Channez McQuay), a stern matriarchal figure and the mother of Virginia (Lauren Williams); his childhood sweetheart, Elmira (Jacquelyn Piro); andthe Whore (Amy McWilliams), who represents his dissipated side.

The music is a purplish stew of opera, heavy-metal anthems and pop torch songs that are high on drama but short on variety and range. No matter how giddy and sustained the high notes, even epiphanies get to be a grind after a while when there are too many of them. The overall tone of near-hysteria is tempered by some gorgeous compositions, especially the towering melancholy of “Evening Star,” the piercing and frantic female harmonies in “Annabel Lee” and the mingling of pain and succor in “To My Mother.”

The “Nevermore” cast members sing as if they’re being chased by demons, and their intensity and willingness to go to extremes transport the audience to a restless fantasy world where there is no comfort or rest.

Daniel Cooney as Edgar embodies the magnetism and self-destructiveness of Poe’s mad genius, and as the lone male voice, he more than holds his own against this coven of powerful women. As Virginia, Miss Williams looks like a French bisque doll and sings like an angel, but her orgasmic response to Poe’s macabre bedtime stories reveals dirtiness beneath the sweetness.

Miss Piro’s achingly empathetic performance as Elmira shows that Poe was not the only person mired in dreams and “what ifs,” and Miss McWilliams takes the thankless role of the Whore and adds intelligence to the character’s unrelenting carnality. Miss Lacey’s outsized portrayal of the vibrant Mother allows you to see why Poe chased her memory all those years.

“Nevermore” is over the top in an Anne Rice-Vampire Lestat sort of way, laying on the emotion and passion with a velvet-cloaked dagger. The new musical could use some work and more variation in the music, but those who are not afraid of heightened states and otherworldly dimensions will find “Nevermore” frighteningly effective. For the shivers it produces, even Poe himself might approve.

WHAT: “Nevermore.” Music by Matt Conner, book by Grace Barnes

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 26.

TICKETS: $31 to $55

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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