Theatrically Yours:  “The Ghost of Fort Niagara”

October 11, 2011

“The Ghost of Fort Niagara” is an engaging little musical by the multitalented Neal Radice, founder and director of Buffalo’s Alleyway Theatre, as well as author, composer, lyricist, and set and lighting designer—just to mention his personas that are directly involved in this Alleyway production!

Having missed the sold-out opening night, my wife Diana Harris and I later caught a sparsely-attended weeknight showing (September 22, 2011). Now, I confess I harumphed to her most of the way there, annoyed that someone would promote the silly old ghost tale. Its earliest-published version is in Samuel De Vaux’s 1839 The Falls of Niagara: “. . . and it was a story with the soldiers and believed by the superstitious, that at midnight the headless trunk of a French general officer was often seen sitting on the curb of the old well, where he had been murdered and his body thrown in.”

With its folkloric motifs of the witching hour and headless ghost, the tale is quite dated (consider, for example, another headless ghost story of the era, Washington Irving’s 1818 literary classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Since such narratives often failed to explain how the ubiquitous specters lost their heads, subsequent storytellers often elaborated the yarns, which is what happened to the legend at Old Fort Niagara. In time, it would be told that the garrison had been hosting a frontier ball when an excess of wine touched off an argument over one of the Native American women. Two French soldiers drew their swords, whereupon, after much swordplay which continued down the stairs to the ground-floor vestibule, one lost his step and the other ran him through. Fearing the consequences, the victor determined to dismember the body and dispose of it in Lake Ontario, but no sooner had he dispensed with the head than he heard others coming and quickly threw the headless corpse down the well. Or so it is said.

In modern times, seeming ghostly activities at the fort have actually resulted from misperceptions of mundane phenomena—such as noises from a loose shutter on one occasion and, on another, the sighting of a ghostly figure hunched on the well that on closer viewing proved to be nothing more than a heap of Christmas greenery. Tour guides debunk the implausible legend: Not only would there have been no such dance party with the Indians, but excavation of the well failed to uncover the bones of the supposedly murdered soldier. (See my article, “Headless Ghosts I Have Known,” Skeptical Briefs, December 2006.)

Neal Radice, however, shows little concern with the reality of the headless ghost. His play—which gives the specter such short shrift that it seems almost an afterthought—is about more substantial things: Young love, duty to parents and country, jealousy and rivalry. As such, it succeeds far more than I expected. And instead of the essentially meaningless ending of the ghost yarn, Radice’s narrative ends with a clever twist that redeems our interest in the story.

Indeed, the best parts of the musical are Radice’s: a creatively successful drama and appealing songs (notably “Romance,” tenderly sung by Katy Clancy as Genevieve LeFevre, and “I Would Love to Show You Paris, vocalized by James Heffron as the young lover, Lt. Didier Chabot). The simple stage sets were also effective, especially a versatile set piece on wheels. (Facing this way or that, it became in turn an exterior stone wall and barrels, the counter and shelves of a trading post, and so on; rolled offstage, it exposed a forest scene.)

Costumes and props were generally good (although an obviously dummy rifle was an embarrassment). The fight scenes seemed well choreographed (by a professional in the field, Adriano Gatto), although in performance the swordsmen tended to look like they were not yet out of rehearsal. The most commanding stage presence came from Roger Van Dette (as poacher Silvain LeFevre), who was also the most powerful vocalist (and even doubled as vocal coach for the others). The acting was competent—if not always inspired. Fortunately, no one was upstaged by the ghost.