Rock Opera’s Creator Rolls The Dice

When the nameless Card Player takes on Lucifer at poker and actually wins the big pot—the ability to succeed at anything he desires—you’d think there’d be a happy ending to an original rock opera debuting on Halloween night.

Think again.

The risks are just beginning—for the characters in the rock opera, and for, Christoph Whitbeck, the local musician who wrote it.

Whitbeck’s The Devil Plays Poker is a serious Halloween trick-and-treat musical that opens Thursday night for four performances through Sunday at Lyric Hall in Westville.

It is a cautionary tale about the meaning of success. As producer, director, chief marketer, guitar player and actor who plays the Devil himself, Whitbeck has also taken taken a personal gamble to create his first rock opera.

Allan Appel PhotoAt a rehearsal in his Hubinger Street apartment, which he shares with other musicians, the Monroe-born Whitbeck said his story’s style originally followed a literary model. He wanted to have eight gamblers, in the spirit of the The Canterbury Tales,  pilgrimage to a casino-style inn, which just happens to be owned by the Cloven Hoof One Himself.

That elaborate cast lent itself neither to the 17 songs Whitbeck had been writing since 2007 on Mephistophelean themes, nor to his modest budget.

So he revisited the story. He came up with a single Card Player who risks his love in a gamble with the Devil and pays dearly for his win.

A viola player in the fourth grade, saxophonist for the high school band, and an autodidact on the guitar (thanks to Internet instruction), Whitbeck most recently played in the now defunct band Tree Stars. He acted in a recent adaptation of David Ives’ plays at Lyric Hall. He keeps body and soul together clerking at a music store in Monroe.

When he finished fleshing out the story in 2009, the songs just waited, and waited. “They didn’t get any better and they didn’t get heard except by a few close friends,” Whitbeck writes in the program notes.

“A close friend said, ‘The thing about art is you can always make more.’ It’s time to stop waiting. Halloween 2013. Let’s do this.’”

And he has. Whitbeck rented Lyric Hall. He assembled four actors and two musicians, all of whom he is committed to paying.

Then he thought about sets. The actors, who have only singing parts, needed chairs. Whitbeck wanted all red ones, which fit the bloody endgame of the opera. But the third would have to be white.

He prevailed on an electrical-engineer friend to make foot switches that he will control to create oscillating, scary light during the thunder and lightning sequences. The singers will wear everyday clothes for most of the production. For the night of violence Whitbeck was able to find four identical nightgowns at Goodwill, which he intends to cover with blood by the end of the first act.

The rest of the set will be created through pictures thrown from an overhead projector. (It can easily fit in the car.) Two artist friends have created artistic banners with graphics, like super titles, to help clarify the story.

“My goal is to keep it portable, minimal, to take on the road,” Whitbeck said.

The simplicity fits the budget as well as Whitbeck’s aesthetic. He goes after big game with modest means. “I appreciate a minimalistic approach. It can be vague some time, but people can fill in.”

He shows the Card Player’s love for his fiancee and how he blows it all through songs; there is no recitative. The show relies on minimal visual art So audience members “in the end listen and can make up their own story,” Whitbeck said.

Whitbeck described his music as good old loud, rhythmic rock and roll with the literary, folkloristic narrative influence of “The Hazards of Love” by the Decemberists and Anais Mitchell’s “Hadestown.”

Beside Whitbeck, the show’s musicians are D’Andre Fontanelle on bass guitar and Jake Habegger on drums. The singer/actors are Peter Cunningham as the Vagrant; Mysti Keller as Mother; Jackie Meeker as the Fiancee; and Michael Walker as the Card Player.

For ticket information, click here.

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