There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Edgar Allen Poe’s life was one of grinding poverty and untimely deaths (including his own, at age 40). And from his first crush—on the mother of a schoolmate, at age 14—he was especially unlucky in love. That first love, Jane, “went mad,” as they said then, and died. His next girlfriend, Elmira, agreed to marry him before he left for college, but was talked into dumping him by her parents. After another serious relationship broke up, he finally made it to the altar at age 27, with his 13-year-old cousin Sissy Clemm, who succumbed to tuberculosis 12 years later. Johnny Mercer, the author of such sappy standards as “Accentuate the Positive” and “Jeepers Creepers,” was born 100 years after Poe and at first blush would seem to have nothing to say to the author. But Peter Coy proves otherwise in his touching new musical, Poe and All That Jazz, as directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner for the Charter Theatre. Christopher Lane plays Poe from self-absorbed melancholic to creative manic; sweet, torchy Amy McWilliams runs the gamut in playing the women in his life—his mother, his girlfriends, his wife, even the famous Raven—who connect with Mercer’s lyrics on each of Poe’s relationships. As she plays young Elmira, for example, she sings a playful, pizzicato “Skylark/Have you anything to say to me?/Won’t you tell me where my love can be?” When Poe thinks of Jane, she sings the same song, this time mournfully, and it takes on a completely different character. And as Sissy lies dying, McWilliams as her mother sings “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” to her—and warns Poe, who’s already contemplating remarriage, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces/When somebody breaks your heart….” Don’t worry, Mrs. Clemm, his next intended will leave him, too. The production design is simple but decadent: Music director Mike Goll sits unobtrusively behind an upright piano draped in satin, a trunk bears a few props from Mrs. Poe’s days on the stage, and Lane and McWilliams wear the same shabby-chic formalwear, suitable for frolicsome young love—or haunting the grave of a dead girlfriend—throughout. The allure of Coy’s script comes from the exquisite contrast between how we say things now and how Poe said them then. “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you/Come rain or come shine” in Mercerspeak was “And neither the angels in heaven above,/Nor the demons down under the sea,/Can ever dissever my soul from the soul/Of the beautiful Annabel Lee” to Poe. —Janet Hopf