If Wes Anderson, Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Bronte had written a musical together it might look and sound a lot like Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet.
New Yorker Malloy has a knack for devising immersive time-travelling scenarios in which linear certainties – time, history, the span of a human life, familial bonds, separation of fact and fiction, classical narrative arcs – become fluid. His Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812 riffed on Tolstoy’s War And Peace and was an energetic convention-busting off-Broadway, then Broadway, spectacle.
Ghost Quartet seems at first a less ambitious, more scaled-back chamber affair, with only four cast members. Fog machines and candles enclose the action, and all of us watching it, in atmospheric intimacy. One end of the set is dominated by Andrew Penner’s drum kit (he is also musical director) and various percussion instruments the other by Beau Dixon’s piano (his channelling of jazz master Thelonious Monk throughout the show is a highlight). The carpeted mid-stage is tiny. But don’t be fooled – this is storytelling on an epic scale.
The work begins in a camera shop in which proprietor Kira Guloien prioritizes whiskey over sales, setting up customer Hailey Gillis with a finger or two before launching into a yarn about two sisters named Rose and Pearl. Malloy’s song cycle provides a kaleidoscopic investigation of that story and its many touchstones (a fiddle, a breastbone, a bear, stardust, a photograph of a ghost).
Structurally, the show unfurls like a double record box set, each new song quietly announced by number and title. It’s a helpful gimmick for anchoring all the chaotic detail. As tracks and sides progress, we jump from one theme to the next, small nuggets of information accumulating like a whodunit, seduced to stick with it by compelling performances and sweet arrangements featuring the sounds of everything from a kazoo to a child’s keyboard.
The narrative tension is not always perfectly tight, with at least a couple of clunky reveals. And the traditional song that closes the show is familiar enough to be slightly jarring after so much original material. But with staging so imaginatively varied and lyrics so archly exhilarating, it’s easy to forgive.
A glance at the convoluted synopsis led me to expect confusion, but it’s not really an issue. You have to be willing to go with the flow and pay attention, for sure. As Guloien warns her customer at the top of the show, “It’s going to be a circular story.”
The dimensional jump cuts and recombinant cultural references of the tale may be dizzying, but its poetic resolution is deeply satisfying.