Sally Spectre The Musical

by Trevor Thomas

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 20, 2009

Rebecca Lane as Sally Spectre
Rebecca Lane as Sally Spectre  

In Sally Spectre the Musical now onstage at Theater West, the ghost of an odd little girl is trapped in an upstairs room of a decaying New Orleans mansion.

The children who play outside in the street can see the forlorn spirit as it wanders by the attic window. They scream in terror at the sight of her and Sally cannot understand why, though it may have something to do with the axe embedded in her skull.

Her companions, an old wooden soldier (Matthew Hoffman) and a stuffed animal so worn and patched he has forgotten what kind of toy he was to begin with (Adam Conger) try to help her, but they are worried.

They are alarmed by the recent arrival of a reaper-like wraith (Rob Monroe) who comes daily to play Chinese checkers with Sally. They fear he is preparing to lead her to another world far away from them. His malevolent nature seems confirmed by the terror his familiars feel for their sardonic overlord.

Though loading his work with fourteen musical numbers and plenty of energetic singing, Writer/Director/Composer David P. Johnson has crafted a much better play than he has a musical. His songs are clever and musically sophisticated, but he tosses them into his play with disregard for how difficult a thing that is to do. Seemingly not grasping the daunting problems of integrating dialogue with musical numbers, he does not attempt to surmount them. Songs interrupt action for commentary, recapitulate dialogue, fail to arise organically, and worse, simply peter out rather than end. It is not to say they are bad songs, they're just not theatrically effective.

Notwithstanding a ghoulish atmosphere reminiscent of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, this play's true progenitor is the libretto Colette provided Maurice Ravel for his 1925 opera "L'Enfant et les SortilŤges" about a naughty child sent upstairs without his supper. Once alone in his room, he is set upon by the very toys he earlier destroyed during an afternoon tantrum. Though the parallels to Colette's masterpiece are promising, Mr. Johnson's vision is not as innocent as hers, and in the overlay of satiric cynicism he fashions, he robs his own story of some of its charm.

As Sally, Rebecca Lane does a superb job of conveying the physicality and emotional gyrations of a child, but does so with a healthy dose of adult irony. It's probably the most viable choice for the actress given how Johnson has crafted his drama, but the contradictions in her character create confusions in the plot we are left to resolve on our own.

The toys are imbued with an innocence that makes them much easier to accept. Mr. Hoffman's soldier is a charming blend of sentiment and stiff upper lip; his movements formal and single-hinged like the toy itself. Mr. Conger gets to play four different characters as his once plush toy is so beat up nobody can remember whether it was once a cat, a prince, a teddy bear, or a clown. He delights us with a bit of them all.

Mr. Monroe's plays the wraith with a trenchant hammy cynicism in a sort of George Sanders homage. Besides providing welcome choral richness, his two assistants (Roger Cruz and Kery Melachouris) are both accomplished character actors and their presence adds much to the ambience.

The author and director is also the evening's accompanist and his pianism is solid. As a composer Johnson has full command of the musical idiom of horror and his score abounds with whole tone scales and glowering diminished sevenths. He would do well to add the art of the song ending "button" to his compositional repertoire.

Theatre West's production is handsome with sets and costumes by cast members Adam Conger and Rebecca Lane, respectively, with assistance in the latter discipline is by Yancey Dunham.

Performances through November 29 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles. Tickets and information at