One of the most exciting developments in the theater in recent years has been the way that serious playwrights have begun to expand our notions of musical theater.
Tony (“Angels in America”) Kushner worked on the magnificent “Caroline, or Change.”
Doug Wright followed his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “I Am My Own Wife” with the book for the extraordinary 2006 musical “Grey Gardens.”
The wonderful new show that opened the Yale Repertory Theatre season Thrusday night, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” continues this trend with Adam Bock (below) — the author of the terrific “The Drunken City,” among others plays — making his first foray into musical theater.
Taking a macabre 1962 novel by Shirley Jackson as his source material, Bock and composer Todd Almond and director Anne Kauffman have fashioned a haunting, funny and moving musical that is worthy of comparison with the Kushner and Wright shows.
“Castle” is about two grown sisters Constance Blackwood (Jenn Gambatese, below left) and Mary Katherine Blackwood (Alexandra Socha, below right) who have been living in seclusion in a Vermont mansion for six years when we meet them at the ages of 28 and 18.
Constance was acquited of murder charges when her parents and her young brother died after being poisoned at dinner one night — there was arsenic in the sugar they put on their dessert — but she and her sister were both viewed with suspicion by the folks in the nearby village (who have always resented the wealth of the Blackwoods).
The sisters live with their elderly uncle, Julian (Bill Buell), who seems to take perverse delight in talking about the poisoning incident whenever strangers turn up — he survived the night along with Connie and Mary Katherine.
Things begin to change when a handsome cousin — Charles (Sean Palmer, above with Gambatese) — arrives for a visit that turns into an extended stay. When Charles begins showing romantic interest in Connie, the younger sister fears that their tight relationship will end.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” functions as a mystery, as an examination of family bonds, and as a study of how a too-close relationship can turn into something that is mysteriously destructive to both parties (what the French call a folie a deux).
The musical moments blend seamlessly with the drama so that we are never conscious of the action stopping for a song or a bit of late 1950s era dancing. Bock and Almond appear to be on the same wavelength in a way that is not always the case in musical theater collaborations.
The casting is superb, with Gambatese and Socha capturing the divided personalities of young women who still have the time (and appealing personalities) necessary to escape the emotionally crippling effects of living in isolation with their nearest neighbors being decidedly unsympathetic.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” has the same creepy undertones that are in almost all of Shirley Jackson’s stories — the Blackwood house has an unsettling personality and physical presence similar to the ghostly mansion in Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” — but the show draws us in to the enveloping eccentricity of the survivors of a terrible crime that has never been solved.
How wonderful for us that the Yale Center for New Theatre — designed to support the development of new American plays and musicals — has given Connecticut theatergoers the world premiere of a fresh new musical that is now ready to live on in other cities and other theaters.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is not to be missed.