Edgar Allan Poe’s Darkly Fantastic Musical Lights Up the Stage at Gannon-U
By Fred Stuart
Father Shawn Clerkin, the director of theatre at Gannon University in Erie, PA, knew that Edgar Allan Poe’s NEVERMORE was a perfect fit as soon as he read it and heard the music. “We have a tendency to do the smaller musicals and we’re always interested in things that have a social justice and a literary-academic side. Once I had a chance to read it, I knew we had to do it!” When Clerkin speaks, he has an incredibly infectious energy that draws you in and takes you on an entertaining and informative journey. He is very popular with his students and I can see why. We spoke by phone recently about his experience with directing NEVERMORE at Gannon.
“Matt Connor‘s music is challenging but very tuneful and singable. The music really lifts up Poe’s words and grows right out of the scenes. In the space of just a few moments it is purely melodic and then beautifully dissident,” Clerkin said, praising the score. “It’s a challenging score but very achievable-we don’t want to lay out anything that isn’t a little challenging.”
The reaction to the show from the students who attended was equally as positive, according to Clerkin. “The Students LOVED IT and so many said it was new and innovative and brought so much vitality to the material that it made it accessible and exciting. They were enthralled to see a musical like this.”
Clerkin’s program operates out of an intimate black box theatre space in a three-quarter thrust configuration that was ideal for a show like NEVERMORE. “We actually don’t want to do the big shows as much-we like the small undiscovered gems like NEVERMORE. It ‘s what we can really offer. A chance for people to see something new, cutting edge and really quite vital,” Clerkin said.
“Our student designers were delightfully challenged by the period and the ghostly feel,” Clerkin continued, ” Their imaginations were ignited. The first night we looked at it under lights with a black scrim featuring candelabras and Poe’s face sort of appearing in shadows, we were thrilled. They used the scrim to conjure up creative and beautifully dark images. They were very excited by the sheer theatricality of the piece.”
Clerkin was quite gratified by the composer’s willingness to let students reach out to him and was very communicative during the process. “Matt (Connor) was absolutely wonderful. Some of the cast reached out to him and he responded and was very helpful and very supportive.”
Clerkin went on to say how well he thinks the show can do at community theatres and especially in the college and university environment. “This is a piece for smart people. It is a thinking person’s musical. Grace Barnes has woven a truthful book that illuminates what causes people to write. She does a great job of tying the Poe stories into his life and plays the imagery and the sense of anguish in his work, but also the sense of artistry and wonderfully complicated emotion.”