If I were 20 years old and still had my lip piercing, Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe, would be everything I could hope for in a musical: macabre lyrics, Victorian-era-inspired Goth fashions, and spooky, sing-song chanting. Sadly, I’m a decade older, so, while entertaining, Nevermore’s a one-trick pony that can’t sustain its momentum beyond the first act.
The creation of Edmonton-based Catalyst Theatre, which mined similar territory at its 2008 PuSh Festival appearance with an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Nevermore delves into the sad life of Poe, the legendary author of brilliantly horrific short stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and the epic horror poem, “The Raven.” Based mostly on actual events, narrators take Poe (Scott Schpeley) and the audience through the signposts of his tragic existence — and there is a ridiculous abundance of tragedy, because almost everyone Poe ever loved died or abandoned him. This means the story stops and starts as Poe copes, rallies, and crashes, again and again. By the time loved one number three begins coughing up blood, it’s almost impossible not to laugh.
Most of the story unfolds with the narrators as puppet masters, the characters acting out their stories as marionettes on strings. This works some of the time, but not every actor has the same level of physical precision. Nevermore is more interesting when the narrators are silenced and the characters are permitted to act out scenes in the present, bringing the audience in on the action.
The music, while full of stark contrasts, could be more complex. As it is, it’s enjoyable, but utterly forgettable. There’s adequate whimsy, woe, and wit in the lyrics, but the problem with paying tribute to a writer like Poe is that few can match his skill with words.
To its credit, Catalyst successfully creates an immersive experience, from the wonderfully simplistic set (a silver scaffold with various sliding doors paneled in what looks like black lace) to the lighting, costumes, and cadence of the songs. But when the initial wow factor ebbs, Nevermore continues on to increasingly diminishing returns.