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Beau Dixon and Kira Guloien of Ghost Quartet In Concert.Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Dahlia Katz

  • Title: Ghost Quartet
  • Written and composed by: Dave Malloy
  • Genre: Chamber musical
  • Director: Marie Farsi
  • Actors: Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, Andrew Penner
  • Company: Crow’s Theatre
  • Year: Continues to Oct. 31, 2020

There’s a feeling I sometimes get at the theatre, and almost only at the theatre, that I am addicted to – and which probably accounts for my lifelong patronage, as both amateur and professional playgoer.

It’s a mixture of pleasure and surprise that manifests itself along my upper spine – but “tingling” doesn’t do it justice. It’s got a depth to it, as if umami were a physical sensation. It is accompanied by a fleeting sense of understanding, of something small or something big about being human, and it is what tips a diverting piece of entertainment over the line into an experience of capital-A art for me.

I got this feeling a few times last fall at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre while watching a mysterious chamber musical called Ghost Quartet. It was a show that I would not hesitate to call a little indulgent and muddy – but that had enough originality, excitement and insight in it that I would nevertheless leap at the chance to see it again.

As it turns out, I don’t even have to take a bunny hop to see Ghost Quartet once more. That Crow’s Theatre production, originally co-produced with Eclipse Theatre Company, has now been adapted into a concert film by its director, Marie Farsi.

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Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre production has now been adapted into a concert film by its director, Marie Farsi.Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Dahlia Katz

It was shot this fall with the original cast of four led by Hailey Gillis and Kira Guloien, who both give complex, career-high performances that are captured in all shades of strangeness (and excellent sound quality).

This pay-to-stream film is available in a six-hour window starting at 8 p.m. ET every night between now and Oct. 31.

Ghost Quartet’s lyrics, music and scenes are by Dave Malloy, a Brooklynite who has a singular voice in all those disciplines and is best known for Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. (Crow’s Theatre and the Musical Stage Company were set to co-produce the Canadian premiere of that show this winter until COVID-19 smashed their plans.)

In his scores, Malloy marries sounds from popular genres of music such as folk, prog rock and electro with avant-garde jazz and classical flourishes (one of his shows, Preludes, is in fact set in the mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff) in songs that regularly shift shape.

But what makes a Malloy musical sound really distinct is his approach to lyrics, which is almost anti-lyrical. He’s not all that interested in rhyme or metre, and often lets words lead the way on melody, even into tongue-twisting traffic jams.

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Kira Guloien of Ghost Quartet In Concert. Ghost Quartet’s lyrics, music and scenes are by Dave Malloy.Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Dahlia Katz

His weak point is storytelling and structure. In the case of Ghost Quartet, it’s hard to follow the plot – which is not unintentional and makes it work naturally as a concert. Just be forewarned: If you’re looking for a comprehensible narrative, or even clear delineation of dramatis personae, you won’t find either here.

There are two female manifestations at its centre – “characters” doesn’t seem like the right word – who go by the names Rose (Gillis) and Pearl (Guloien), but exist in many eras and in overlapping incarnations.

The two are sometimes daughter and mother (in a sequence inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher) and sometimes sisters (fighting over the same astronomer-lover, or Scheherazade and Dunyazad in 1001 Nights).

At times, they are simply Hailey and Kira, performing in a spooky, silly and circular show, pausing to raise a glass to male co-stars Beau Dixon (who plays a honey-loving bear, multiple keyboard instruments and a harmonica) and Andrew Penner (who plays the astronomer and a multitude of instruments, and is also musical director).

In a minor change from last fall’s staging, Gillis now drinks water while her castmates drink a whiskey-like liquid – a delightful acknowledgment that the Soulpepper regular is about seven months pregnant. This perhaps helps her give a particularly luminous performance of the soaring solo Starchild (and definitely enhances the nested nature of her characterization of Rose).

I suppose Malloy’s point in collapsing folk tales, ghost stories, urban legends and classic literature together while avoiding clear beginnings or endings is to say something about storytelling in general. Stories are summoned like spirits, as much as written or told, and, in containing the ghosts of previous generations’ stories, all stories are ghost stories.

Regardless, many of its songs are memorable and memorably performed here by Gillis, whose profound emotional connection to music has always impressed, and Guloien, who has matured as a performer into a stunning shape-shifter who, at times, seems to evaporate into Patrick Lavender’s lighting in this film.

Their set-list culminates in a folk tune called The Wind and Rain inspired by a classic murder ballad (and a pinch of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I suspect) that builds and builds – and, voila, activated that feeling that this theatre junkie had been jonesing for.

And so, my spine recommends the film of Ghost Quartet highly, whether you’re paying a first-time visit to Malloy’s material or you’ve already seen the show in one of your past lives.

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