Composer Duncan Sheik’s voice, which entered the world of stage tuners with a roar in 2004’s “Spring Awakening,” is reduced to a whisper in “Whisper House,” the somnolent chamber musical now world premiering at the Old Globe. Sheik’s sophomore slump doesn’t mean his vastly popular, Tony-winning debut was a fluke. But it does suggest he needs to peg his distinctive repertoire to a stronger story than the anemic narrative penned by collaborator Kyle Jarrow.
The premise — a young boy unwillingly plopped into a crusty female relative’s home during WWII — is amusingly the same as that of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” now playing next door in the Old Globe’s newly renovated arena space. But whereas Simon’s Grandma Kurnitz is genuinely terrifying, with humor and tension swirling around her, New England lighthouse keeper Miss Lilly (Mare Winningham) is drawn as a sluggishly one-dimensional curmudgeon whose detachment from the world at large seems to suit her fine.
Awaiting mom’s recovery from a breakdown after dad’s South Pacific death, nephew Christopher (A.J. Foggiano) is understandably alarmed when Lilly’s Japanese employee Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuna) starts poking around with a camera a mere three months after Pearl Harbor. More unnervingly, Christopher is the only one who can see the lighthouse’s two ghosts (David Poe, Holly Brook), though thesp’s blandness requires us to take his terror on faith.
Clad by Jenny Mannis in a top hat for him and bustier for her, Poe and Brook come across like Riff Raff and Magenta in “The Rocky Horror Show” minus the fun. Assigned 99% of the singing burden, these spectral survivors of a 1912 yacht disaster breathily deliver a string of ballads in Sheik’s signature mournful, near-rhymed (“broke on arrival / took off in style”; “storms do strike / keep up the fight”) vein.
As capably performed by Jason Hart and his upstage combo, there’s delicacy and melodic richness in the score’s mockery of human folly and assurances that it’s “Better to Be Dead.” But there’s considerable monotony as well, mostly because the ghosts show no particular reason to express themselves as they do. They’re little more than emcees, with minimal investment in the goings-on.
One yearns for something akin to a hard-driving anthem a la “The Bitch of Living” or “Totally Fucked” from Sheik’s first show, but this musical palette is all chilly blue, emo without high emotion. These lackadaisical ghosts seem in no more hurry to be released from their vaguely defined bondage than the living characters are driven to make anything happen.
As with rock ‘n’ roll’s intrusion on the 19th century in “Spring Awakening,” you either go with the absence of period melody and rhythm or you don’t. But why take the trouble to set a tuner in the first months of WWII if not to tap into the era’s urgency, energy, panic and, yes, exhilaration?
Instead, helmer Peter Askin sets his cast sleepwalking as if already war-weary, his staging lacking lightness or pacing variety. Meanwhile, toying with stock coming-of-age and brotherhood themes, librettist Jarrow contributes flavorless dialogue heavy on the exposition. Plot points are telegraphed and delivered with Western Union efficiency but not effect.
Michael Schweikardt’s three-tiered lighthouse interior is impressive but confusingly cluttered, and Matthew Richards’ lighting overdoes the fog effects and gloomy haze. Surprisingly, the towering beam of light is barely evident, with Jarrow’s plotting requiring it to be untheatrically extinguished at the climax.
Even an 11th-hour U-boat attack isn’t enough to raise “Whisper House” out of its torpor.