Edward Gorey’s whimsical approach to murder, suicide, fatal illnesses and lavish funerals is on full display in “The Gorey Details.” A compilation of macabre skits and songs derived from the late illustrator-writer’s work (Gorey died at 75 in April), with music by veteran orchestrator Peter Matz, the show is being billed as a “musicale.” It was previously presented under the title “Amphoragorey” at the Provincetown Repertory Theater. Fans will love every crosshatched detail, right down to the Gorey homage that puts all the actors in sneakers (the author’s preferred form of footwear). Others may wonder if the costume designer simply ran out of money, and what the hell Q.R.V. stands for.
The show begins unpromisingly. Gorey stand-in Ogdred Weary (Kevin McDermott) wonders what he’ll write about next. As dramatic premises go, writer’s block has never set the stage ablaze with intriguing possibilities. Worse, Weary gets his inspiration from an urn imprinted with the letters Q.R.V., which stand for absolutely nothing but are a Gorey signature of sorts. Non-aficionados may be baffled at the preciousness of the enterprise.
Most of the action that follows isn’t strong on cause-and-effect, which is at least half of Gorey’s charm on the page. People end up dead because that’s the way life is, especially if you’ve got servants around. Gorey’s wit also has a rather untheatrical habit of creeping up on you — “On the beach, I saw a bat or perhaps an umbrella” — and Matz’s music neither gets in its way nor excites the senses.
Fortunately, acts one and two conclude with the evening’s most substantial pieces, both of them worthy of expansion: “The Blue Aspic,” about an opera diva and the crazed fan who stabs her where it hurts most, the throat; and “The Admonitory Hippopotamus,” which in a few glorious minutes spans the life of the adventurous Angelica, who for 80-plus years lives by the words of her imaginary playmate, a hippo: “Fly at once! All is discovered!”
As both Angelica’s muse and the fan Jasper, Daniel C. Levine is a Gorey wonder. He never fails to give the devastating impression that if he misses one more meal, his eyeballs will sink back into his skull forever. As the diva Hortense Caviglia, Clare Stollak possesses a full-throttle voice that confirms every opera hater’s stereotype of the art.
Allison DeSalvo keeps popping up in minor roles in act one, her eyes tantalizing us with mischief to come. And come it does in act two when, as the antic and irrepressible Angelica, she is the very reincarnation of the legendary Charles Ludlam. She even knows how to wear a hat.
The rest of the cast doesn’t: They are simply too young — or young-acting — to be playing Gorey. The author’s Victoriana predates our youth culture and recalls an era when little children were eerily adult and adults were middle-aged at 31 (which, given their lifespans in “The Gorey Details,” is an overly optimistic estimation).
Martha Bromelmeier’s costumes are wittily overstuffed, but the sneakers don’t help here. Under Daniel Levans’ direction, the actors are also hampered when they camp it up as though “The Gorey Details” were a school production rather than a professional one.
Theatergoers who remember the Gorey revival of “Dracula” on Broadway in 1977 will not be disappointed with Jesse Poleshuck’s equally elegant sets here. The moonlit lake with gazebo enchants in act two, and Craig Kennedy’s lighting of the French doors in act one would entice even the least aggressive vampire to bash them.