Given all the reference points Ghost Quartet weaves into its densely worded songs, something substantive ought to remain after the lights come up. The intimate chamber musical’s narrative infuses an apothecary’s-worth of intriguing touchstones: Edgar Allen Poe, Thelonious Monk, H.P. Lovecraft, traditional English murder ballads, Appalachian folk music, 1,001 Nights, whiskey appreciation. The performance is intentionally unstuck in time, its four acts presented like sides of a double LP (“Side 1, track 1: ‘I Don’t Know,’” etc.) and layering ghostly visitations, dreams and other temporal detours over the in-the-moment action onstage. Things unfold almost entirely through song; occasional segues into dialogue help stake important plot points into the narrative slipstream. This massive thematic package is bundled into an abstract, barely-there story, and the four actor-musicians in the middle are tasked with making it work.
The plot is loose and impressionistic, more a sketch than fully formed composition. It revolves around a pair of sisters who may be mother-daughter and also maybe lovers, and follows the convolutions of their intertwined lives and romances with various figures, spanning centuries, history, literature, astronomy, legend, jazz, jealousy, murder. The actors transition through characters as the narrative careens across time and space. All of which, again, sounds like WOW: This time-traveling, astral-projecting ghost-story meta-musical could be a thing of genuine power and illumination.
But it proves too much to rein in. All those fascinating touchstones zoom by like ticks on a grad-student’s checklist, a series of likes signifying a gravitas that the performance never achieves. Buoyed by a handful of impassioned musical moments, Ghost Quartet mostly skims through a jumbled sequence of set pieces and simply vanishes before it ever settles in.
In its merging of acoustic music, fairy tale and the macabre, the general sensibility Ghost Quartet attempts is something like Richard Scarry meets Tom Waits. But right from the start, the tone mismatches the content.
After the actors walk onstage—centered inside Erickson Theatre and made to look like a Victorian living room, with heavy rugs on the floor and dim lamps hanging from the rafters—and take their places at its four corners, composer/pianist Dave Molloy addresses the audience to explain the night’s protocol. Overly paternal and twee, his goofy, golly-gee demeanor throws the proceedings off-kilter, especially as the other performers—Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, whose keening voices feel ill-suited to the cosmic content, and the magnetically stoic Brett Arnold—delve deeply into their parts, more understated and more aware of their surroundings. Molloy’s unkempt appearance doesn’t help: He looks like he just woke up and threw on whatever was piled on the floor. He isn’t an actor embedded in the narrative, he’s a guy playing piano (brilliantly) and trying too hard. Arriving halfway through the piece, his portrayal of a love interest is downright unbelievable.
Some sharp directorial choices lend genuine flair: Almost the entirety of the third act takes place in total darkness, sharpening sensory perception of the action onstage. The piece’s climax occurs in this alternative setting, taking advantage of the disorientation that the darkness provides. Also, at one point, the cast pours glasses of whiskey for everyone in the audience.
The music binds the performance, a rustic, rousing mix of Irish- and Appalachian-style folk, contemporary stomp-and-clap folk-pop, torch song jazz and midcentury bebop. Occasional lyrical gems jump out: “I was empty then/And I’m empty now/But it’s not the same at all,” Bell sings during a particularly haunting song. Several times throughout the show, Bell takes to Celtic harp, which emits a weird and alluring hum, an eerie sonic ambiance the show otherwise fails to achieve. Twice the cast distributes percussion instruments to the front row and encourages musical interaction. The second time is for the finale, which incorporates a murder ballad that dates back to the 1600s and has since been performed by artists as diverse as Gillian Welsh, Megan Mullaly and Jerry Garcia.
“Wind and Rain” is alternately known as “The Cruel Sister,” “The Sisters” “My Bonny Swan” and other titles. It describes two sisters who vie for the love of a miller’s son. One sister drowns the other in a spontaneous act of jealousy. A passerby finds her body and makes a fiddle from her hair and bones; the fiddle plays on its own.
There’s a reason why, so many centuries hence, one listen to “Wind and Rain” will lodge the song in your head forever. Telling a mournful tale of sisterly love, jealousy, murder and the supernatural—with a macabre twist ending—it encapsulates in four minutes what Ghost Quartet struggles to convey in 90.
Ghost Quartet plays at Erickson Theatre through Jan. 28.