Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Sea Cabinet
Theatre Elision
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, Flex, Torch Song, and Seven Keys

Bex Gaunt
Photo by Jolie Morehouse Olson
Theatre Elision's 2019 dazzling production of the song cycle Sea Cabinet at the Southern Theatre was its world premiere as a theatrical staging. The show is back for a repeat staging at Theatre Elision's home playhouse in Crystal, sadly for only a two-week run. Among an array of top notch works of musical theatre by other local companies, this is one of the most beautifully rendered works you will see. Though it has only the suggestion of a narrative, this song cycle conveys such depth of feeling through its vibrant music, matched with the beautiful imagery of Cindy Polich's videos capturing the ever-changing sea and Jessica Holleque's photographs of objects and women (their faces unseen) suggested by the show's text, one emerges from a performance of Sea Cabinet with a sense of wonder and renewal.

Prior to Elision's 2019 staging of Sea Cabinet, its songs by Gwyneth Herbert and Fiona Bevan and book by Heidi James had only been presented in concert form, and only twice: its premiere in 2010 in Suffolk, England, and a 2013 concert performance in London. The piece was recorded, sung solely by Herbert. Christine and Harrison Wade, co-artistic directors of Theatre Elision, got their hands on the work, but "the work" consisted only of the text and Herbert's solo recording. There was neither sheet music nor orchestrations to be had.

The Wades adapted Sea Cabinet as a chamber piece for four voices and created orchestrations using such familiar instruments as piano, stand-up bass, guitar, violin, woodwinds, drums, accordion and xylophone. Then they added both known and found instruments of all kinds, things that could be struck, blown, shifted, dropped, or in some other manner create a sound. Examples include hand bells, a toy piano, the sound of repeatedly drawing out a fistful of small stones from a bowl, blowing on the open necks of beer bottles each with different levels of water, rubbing a wooden spoon back and forth across a wicker grain sifter, and striking an upright suitcase with a drum. This undertaking has paid off with glorious results.

Sea Cabinet is set along a stretch of rough English seacoast. The setting is life-affirming, as water is essential for life. It is also rife with danger, as the flooding sea can remove entire villages, and those who seek sustenance from it face the risk of being swallowed up. We hear about a woman longing the absence of a man, probably her lover, who went to sea and never returned. Every day, the woman combs the beach for objects washed ashore by the ebb and flow of the surf–common things, such as shells and broken glass, and uncommon things such as a violin, an infant's shoe, human bones, and a German artillery shell left behind from the war. The woman collects and catalogs every one of these objects.

These are the objects in her sea cabinet. They form the basis of some of the songs, along with references to seaside lore and habits, such as: "The King's Schilling," a paean to the lure of the pub; "Alderney," a tribute to the World War II evacuation of one of the Channel Islands; and "I Still Hear the Bells," the legend of the drowned village of Dunwich in the 13th century.

Four performers alternate as lead singers of Sea Cabinet's twelve songs–with a reprise of the opening "Sea Theme"–and also play the above-mentioned instruments, along with a trio of musicians set just off stage. Happily, the singers in this return production are the same four who won my heart and made me a devotee of Theatre Elision in 2019: Emily Dussault, Vanessa Gamble, Bex Gaunt, and Christine Wade (who also is the production's vocal director). Each of the four have distinct and beautiful voices, and their harmonies are stunning. I hasten to add that, along with the invented instruments, these four also play some that are standard, including violin, piano, guitar and oboe, so their contributions reflect a host of talents. Dussault and Wade make breathtaking music on a double xylophone, and Gamble even embroiders the score with evocative whistling.

The musicians are bass player Chet Goldsberry-Hill and percussionist Miles Whealy, both new to Sea Cabinet, and Harrison Wade, returning to play keyboards, clarinet and accordion, as well as serving as music director. They provide the foundation of the score, giving each song a layer of beach-front on which the singers can plant their instrumental embellishments, like found objects on the beach, all buoyed by the breeze of heart-felt vocalizing.

Director Lindsey Fitzgerald maintains a consistent atmosphere of hope fighting to overcome a cast of melancholy–you can judge for yourself whether or not hope wins the fight. Fitzgerald is also the show's designer, using fish nets, well-weathered furnishings, and trinkets to be found in a maritime setting. Andrea Johnson's sound design and Laina Grendle's lighting work in harmony with the production.

Those looking for a standard musical, with a straightforward plot, production dance numbers, lavish costumes and sets, and a brassy sound may not find that Sea Cabinet fits the bill. Those looking for something different, something that slows down rather than speeds up the pulse, and presents a meditative experience that draws out the beauty in the human voice, and the depth of the human heart, should definitely find their way to Sea Cabinet while it remains harbored at Theatre Elision.

As a bonus, Theatre Elision has launched the "Theatre Elision Forest." Through Tree-Nation, they will support the planting of a tree every time someone donates to Theatre Elision, buys a ticket or punch-card to their productions, or joins their Patreon. Tree-Nation is a non-profit that plants trees to counteract the problem of deforestation, which is judged to be responsible for about 17% of all climate change emissions. As of this writing, 1,703 trees have been planted thanks to Theatre Elision donors and patrons. One could say that with Theatre Elision's production of Sea Cabinet, they are cultivating a meeting of the forest and the sea.

Sea Cabinet, runs through May 18, 2024, at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Music: Gwyneth Herbert and Fiona Bevan; Book: Heidi James; Photography: Jessica Holleque; Director, Designer: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director: Harrison Wade; Vocal Director: Christine Wade; Sound Design: Andrea Johnson; Lighting Design and Stage Manager: Laina Grendle; Production Associate: Willo Abel Burglechner.

Cast: Emily Dussault; Vanessa Gamble; Bex Gaunt; Christine.

Musicians: Bass: Chet Goldsberry-Hill; Percussion: Miles Wheatley; Piano, Clarinet, Accordion: Harrison Wade.