Dallas — You can’t expect an unbiased review of Ghost Quartet, the latest offering from the Off-Broadway on Flora series from AT&T Performing Arts Center, because the wall of sound from these four expert musicians wraps the audience in such a cozy embrace there’s no resisting.
It’s simply a case of love at first listen.
From the musical mind of Dave Malloy comes a “haunted song cycle about love, death and whiskey.” Oh, that’s the other reason that any review is biased. And, yes, the bottles are passed around from the folks on cushions in the front row to the people in the very back. There’s a lot of sharing. That goes for maracas and other musical instruments as well.
This isn’t to say that things are indiscriminant. Malloy makes it clear from the start that cell phones are to be rendered unable to make any intrusion whatsoever, including giving off light. That’s right: booze and blackouts. Don’t worry. You’re in good hands.
Director Annie Tippe has gently staged the song cycle relying more on the communal feel than any theatrical shenanigans. The lyrical leaps provide more than enough to be getting on with. Designer Christopher Bowser welcomes everyone with soft textures of Persian rugs and pillows as well as a soft glow from chandeliers and old lampshades. The production seems bent on coaxing us out of our shell.
Really, it’s the overwhelming musical prowess that wins the audience’s willing surrender. Malloy plays piano. Brent Arnold works the cello, mainly. Onstage are singers Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, who also play a range of instruments exotic and not. Of the foursome, it’s Bell who grabs the attention first with a wan demeanor, hiding an operatic powerhouse of a voice. She can go from whispery ghost voice (see: title) to a shrill scream that morphs into the shushing of subway wheels slicing through her soul.
You may guess from that that bad things happen; but also, good. The list of sources of inspiration is longer than this review and includes such disparate things as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Ziggy Stardust and The Legend of Zelda. The narrative is recursive. Just when you recognize a pattern it falls back on itself like a great jazz record, except it also has the lyrics to several bluegrass songs layer in as well. There are two sisters, Rose and Pearl—or maybe one is imaginary or maybe she’s her own daughter stolen by an astronomer or killed by a bear in exchange for a pot of honey, a piece of stardust and a picture of a ghost. There’s a lot of detail, but don’t get distracted by the trees; the forest is the real concern.
Musically, it’s incredible.
A musical mulligatawny that is familiar and comforting without ever overwhelming even though they load note on note and texture on texture (sort of like the narrative, see). Part of the enjoyment is deciphering the layers of voice, instrument, origination, etc. Lovers of scotch will understand the experience like tasting exotic single malt that contains in it the smells and textures of some wind-blasted hill of peat and rock. That’s what this evening is like except the heath these folks evoke includes jazz clubs, fairy tales and the subway.
Nothing in Dallas tastes like this.
To get your fill, I strongly suggest sitting on the floor in the very center. The sound is exquisite. At one point, cellist Arnold and Malloy, not content to simply master their own musical corners, come center stage for a drum duel. At six feet away, you can feel every beat in your belly.
Beware, the story ends before you’re ready. So, bring $15 for a copy of the show CD. Otherwise, that sound will leave you full of lonesome longing in your car.
» Read our interview with Dave Malloy about Ghost Quartet