BWW Review: MOBY DICK: The One That Got Away
Music, Lyrics, Book, and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy, Based on Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Developed with & Directed by Rachel Chavkin; Music Direction & Supervision, Or Matias; Choreography, Chanel DaSilva; Scenic Design, Mimi Lien; Costume Design, Brenda Abbandandolo; Lighting Design, Bradley King; Sound Design, Hidenori Nakajo; Puppet Design & Puppet Direction, Eric F. Avery; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Production Stage Manager, Geoff Boronda
CAST (in order of appearance): Dawn L. Troupe, Manik Choksi, Kim Blanck, Starr Busby, Andrew Cristi, Ashkon Davaran, Morgan Siobhan Green, Anna Ishida, Matt Kizer, J.D. Mollison, Kalyn West, Tom Nelis, Eric Berryman; Swings: Ellis C. Dawson III, Ashley Pérez Flanagan; BAND: J. Oconer Navarro (conductor), Jason Fisher, Marissa Licata, Lev Mamuya, Lizzie Burns, Austin Yancey, Paul Mardy, Skye Dearborn, Robert Schulz
Performances through January 12 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org
The much-anticipated Moby Dick (A Musical Reckoning), from the team that brought you Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 in 2015, has finally surfaced at the Loeb Drama Center of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Based on the iconic American novel by Herman Melville, the three-and-a-half-hour-long musical endeavors to theatricalize about 40 of the book's 135 chapters, taking a much larger bite from the source material than the mere 70- page section of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace adapted for The Great Comet. Oh, would that Dave Malloy (music, book, lyrics, and orchestrations) and Rachel Chavkin (director, co-developer) had approached this project with such surgical skill, rather than casting the broadest of nets upon the waters.
Modeling the musical's concept on Melville's use of numerous styles and devices, Malloy tells the tale in four parts, plus prologue and epilogue: Part I: The Doubloon, Part II: The Honour and Glory of Whaling, Part III: The Ballad of Pip; or, 18. The Castaway, and Part IV: The American Hearse. Depending on your point of view, it may be seen as a positive or a negative that each of the four parts is presented in its own format or style, and each has a distinct tone. My reaction was mixed, both to the entirety of one part or another, as well as to some of the subsections of some of the parts, but perhaps more on that later after laying out the plot breakdown.
From the start, the fourth wall bends to the whims of our narrator, Ishmael (Manik Choksi), who explains some of the background of the author and the novel, before gradually introducing the crew of the Pequod. This is an opportunity for each of the actors to establish the persona of their characters and imprint their identity on the audience. The performances of the talented cast are the ongoing highlight: Dawn L. Troupe (Father Mapple/Captain of the Albatross/Captain Boomer of the Bachelor/Captain Gardiner of the Rachel), Kim Blanck (Sailor 2/The Carpenter), Starr Busby (Starbuck), Andrew Cristi (Queequeg), Ashkon Davaran (Sailor 1/The Blacksmith), Morgan Siobhan Green (Pip), Anna Ishida (Flask), Matt Kizer (Tashtego), J.D. Mollison (Daggoo), Kalyn West (Stubb), Tom Nelis (Ahab), and Eric Berryman (Fedallah). Troupe, Busby, Kizer, and West are standout vocalists who captured my attention.
It is specifically noted in the script that only Ahab is to be played by a white male, with all other roles being played by a diverse mix of people of color and without regard to gender. As a result, there are some unusual interpersonal dynamics that raise the stakes, especially in the case of Starbuck (Busby is a woman of color) standing up to the captain (an older white male), the metaphorical and actual symbol of white supremacy in the community of the ship. Many of the themes that Melville tapped into when writing in 1851 are culturally resonant in 2019, and Malloy weaves them throughout the narrative. In addition to racism, be aware of motifs pertaining to environmentalism, capitalism, and democracy, and the image of a deranged, old guy hell-bent on destroying his perceived nemesis, regardless of the collateral damage to his ship and crew, may bear a resemblance to the circumstances on our modern ship of state.
There is a five-minute pause after Part I as volunteers are culled from the audience to portray additional crew members. After red ponchos are dispensed to them, they are seated in four pews onstage and observe a lesson in cetology rendered by Ishmael, as the mates parade around with artsy-craftsy puppets (designed by Eric F. Avery) depicting numerous whale species. Next, in a very Disney World-like scenario, stage hands open a door in the middle of the floor to reveal a wide cavity from which ascend four whaling boats (there is even a voiceover announcement advising of the dangers of the ride they're about to go on). The volunteers board the boats and are wheeled around in a big circle by the sailors, ostensibly joining the whale hunt. After a whale is caught and killed, Stubb demonstrates how to cut it up and prepare the parts. The recruits get to participate in a gross practice of squeezing the sperm whale's blubber by hand, an exercise that takes up far too much time at the end of a conceit that already takes up far too much time.
Part II also introduces a new harpooner (Fedallah) who is met with suspicion by the rest of the crew, but Ahab reserves the right to hire anyone he wants. In one of the more anachronistic moments of the show, Berryman whips out a handheld microphone and tells Fedallah's story in the manner of a profanity-laced, standup comedy routine. It is not Moby Dick's first display of self awareness when he even pokes at the white creative team's prescription for diverse casting, sarcastically implying they may receive an award. After the audience participation segment and the comic shtick, there is a fraught scene (note major shift in tone) between Starbuck and Ahab that illustrates the former's valor and the latter's growing obsession. Busby closes out the act with a beautiful 11 o'clock number ("Dusk") pleading for help from above to help this man.
The less said about Part III, the better. Props to Green (Pip), who deserves the spotlight put on her for this section, and the ensemble's manipulation of a large blue-green sheet to conjure up the waves of the ocean is creative and evocative, but Part III feels interminable. It is with great relief that we move forward to Part IV, (cut to) the final chase of the great white whale, and the tragic denouement. We all know what's coming, but there is an element of surprise in how it will be brought to life. Many aspects of the staging are inspired, and sometimes something as simple as the actors moving in slow motion achieves the desired result. Scenic designer Mimi Lien, who served in the same capacity for The Great Comet, transforms the Loeb into the interior of the Pequod, even as she also makes it feel like being inside the belly of the whale. Lighting designer Bradley King and sound designer Hidenori Nakajo effectively augment the environment to place us at sea, with the roar of the ocean and the songs of the whales for atmosphere and authenticity.
Malloy's score comes from many American genres of music and choreographer Chanel DaSilva appropriately chooses eclectic dance styles for the sailors to perform. Chavkin's direction shows her ability to take on such an epic production, with so many moving parts, and keep all of the balls in the air. Music direction and supervision is by Or Matias, but the nine-piece band, situated on a multi-tiered structure stage right, plays under conductor/pianist J. Oconer Navarro. Visual interest is heightened by Brenda Abbandandolo's costume design and Rachel Padula-Shufelt's wig, hair, and makeup design.
It is astonishing that Moby Dick retains such importance 168 years after the novel was published, and that another adaptation is surfacing at this time. It had its origins on the cusp of the Civil War, and there are those who would suggest that our country is in a position to face a similar crisis, although it seems unimaginable. Still, this musical reckoning attempts to hold a mirror up to the "-isms" that threaten our republic and serves as a cautionary tale. We never actually see the white whale in the course of the show, but it looms over the ship, over the crew, and over the captain as an immutable force. For all of the flaws, perhaps Malloy, Chavkin, and company at least make the point that we ignore it at our peril.
Photo credit: Maria Baranova, Evgenia Eliseeva (Members of the cast of Moby Dick)