MOBY DICK: A MUSICAL RECKONING - A.R.T., Cambridge, MA
“Call me Ishmael” famously declares the narrator of legendary novel “Moby-Dick”. Call me exhilarated and bored, mesmerized and distracted, all at the same time at Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s epic, “Moby Dick: A Musical Reckoning”, in its world premiere at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Composer and lyricist Malloy, best known for “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, which also launched from A. R. T., not only embraces the narrative sweep and moral undertow of arguably the best - or most - American novel of all, but also extrapolates from it, with expressive abandon, his and director Rachel Chavkin’s - view of American today. Malloy conceived the project, co-developed it with Ravkin, and wrote the book. There’s plenty of wokeness. And the score - borrowing mostly from uniquely American forms of folk, jazz and hip-hop - is, at times, ravishing. But, dramatic momentum is unsustainable, in this sprawling, inchoate 3 and half hour production.
The prologue for “Moby Dick”, a 19thC inspired religious ballad called “Sermon” (one of Malloy’s best singular compositions of the score) portends lots of sermonizing that follows. The preacher (a wonderful Dawn L. Troupe who plays multiple roles), invoking the Old Testament‘s Jonah, commences “Beloved shipmates… we are in the belly of the whale”. Indeed, under the brilliant scenic design of Mimi Lien, the space of A.R.T.’s Loeb Theatre transforms, with natural wood planking floor, back wall and ceiling that envelopes audience and thrust performance space, into an abstracted whale skeletal carcass and ship’s deck, anchored by mast and captain’s deck at each end.
Four parts follow, including a pause and intermission. In Part 1, “The Doubloon”, Ishmael (Manik Choski, who played in “Natasha Pierre…”) arrives as both narrator and, de facto, cultural interlocutor between mid-19th century and America today, clutching a new paperback edition of “Moby-Dick”. Shifting between modern language and Melville’s prose (Malloy adapted 40 of 135 chapters), Malloy’s Ishmael is today’s disillusioned Everyman: “I don’t feel safe in my country anymore”.
The whaling ship Pequod (here a metaphor for the ship of state America) is populated contra-19th century: Ishmael comments “the Pequod is the America I want to see”. Captain Ahab (Tom Nelis) is the only “white” person of the gender-blind cast of 13, all of whom are mixed races or mixed non-European ethnicities. Chief mate, second-in- command, Starbuck (Starr Busby, who also played in Malloy’s “Octet”) and shipmates Flask and Stubb are all played by women. Ahab assigns his new ship hand Ishmael to share a bed with star harpooner Queequeg (Andrew Cristi). Malloy cleverly extracts the sexual subtext that gay scholars have long believed about Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship. Gulps Ishmael about the tattooed, exotic and foreign savage Queequeg, “I’ve never seen a harpoon as large as his.”
In the wittiest - and one of the four strongest musical sequences of more than two dozen - “A Bosom Friend”, Ishmael protests, before succumbing, “I don’t want to sleep with a cannibal”. The sequence, in contrast to the obvious proselytizing that follows, is the subtlest of Malloy’s cultural commentary: he finds paradox in cannibalism being the forgivable sin rather than homosexuality. One of the Pequod crew finally observes “ better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian”.
Unfortunately, Malloy foregoes subversive wit in Part II, “The Honor and Glory of Whaling, which is part vaudeville-review, part audience immersion and part recreation of the “long and boring parts” of the novel wherein Melville explained the intricacies of whaling. Egregiously, Part 2’s spectacle is set up by two shipmates that are whale spotting from the crow’s nest of the mast. Marveling at the Pacific’s pure, expansive beauty, one comments out of the blue, and “there’s a plastic ocean the size of Texas out there”. Really? Melville’s novel is replete with contemplations about nature, but does Malloy need to be so obvious about the environment, especially when the props in the scene that follows are all made of waste material, including plastic. Ishmael gives a “Cetology” tutorial about all the whale types. Puppet designer Eric F. Avery has cleverly designed a school of different whale species outfitted from scrap materials – plastic bottles, used cardboard, etc – which parade out bearing climate conscious slogans. Avery’s puppetry and Chauvin’s direction is bold enough: the audience is sophisticated enough to interpret the visual vocabulary to make the environmental point.
Ishmael recruits a dozen and a half members from the audience to be ship mates who go out on the whale hunt with the cast. Little dingys (that recall kiddie rides in an amusement park) transport these raincoat-clad theatergoers through the whale hunt, the harpooning with ropes, a Nantucket sleigh ride (the boat being dragged through the sea by the harpooned whale struggling to flee, the slaughter (blood squirting from the blow spout of the whale shaped from of sheets of bubble wrap) and harvesting of the blubber (large sheets of layered poly-foam). It concludes with the theatergoer crew and cast sitting in a large circle re-enacting squeezing spermaceti (prized oil from brain fluid nodes used in candle wax and such) and singing a gospel ballad “A Squeeze of the Hand”. And as long as we’re environmentally woked, we get a little aside about how coal, then petroleum, replaced whale oil. (Bad, bad fossil fuels.)
The whole spectacle is ingeniously mounted by director Chavkin , who with more finesse than here staged the Tony-winning “Hadestown” for which she received all major directing awards. Her Part 2 staging is novel, wondrously creative even, with a quirky, playful edge, but reminiscent of grade school field trips to museums. At this point, in all transparency I should say I’m a native a New Bedford, the 19thc whaling capital, and spent most rainy Saturday afternoons of my youth at the Whaling Museum there (although we didn’t have anything as fun as spermaceti squeezing - just climbing all over the half-scale replica of the whale ship Lagoda).
Part II doesn’t flow dramatically; it’s entertaining to a point, smacking of show-and-tell, but really grinds to a halt with the introduction of Fedallah (Eric Berryman), first costumed as turbaned South Asian or Muslim, who does a stand-up comedy routine about race which has all the humor of a college seminar of Black lives matter. Malloy and Chavkin must know much of this is self-indulgent. Indeed, at one point, Ishmael, kicking down the fourth wall for the umpteenth time, asserts with self-conscious self-deprecation that the show could get a Tony for “outstanding wokeness in a musical”. Sorry, too cute by half.
Still, Malloy and Chavkin astonishingly keep the main plot -Ahab’s hunt for the great white whale (remember?) - alive. Quips Fedallah, observing Ahab’s mounting obsession, “Quakers gone crackers” (Quakers being the wealthy owners of most of the whaling fleet out of New Bedford and Nantucket.) Part 2 concludes with the highpoint of the entire production, a lushly composed and orchestrated, elegiac ballad, superbly played by the 9 piece band, called “Dusk” magnificently led by Ms Busby as Starbuck who contemplates the encroaching doom of the Pequod.
Part III, “The Ballad of Pip; or 18. The Castaway” is almost a stand-alone vignette in itself, certainly the most congruent dramatically and musically than any other part of the production. Ahab’s cabin boy Pip (the spirited Morgan Siobahn Green) tells her (his) tale of being swept away, caught in the rope of a harpooned whale, in five interlocking jazz and hip hop inspired musical numbers. Chanel da Silva’s tambourine-driven choreography fits best with the musical sensibility here. Malloy’s book and lyrics - even for the intimate tragedy of Pip - are as woke and expansive as ever, encompassing lyrics like “Is God cis gender?”, “Whales don’t have hate crimes”, and from Dr. Seuss I hate green eggs and ham.
Part IV “The American Hearse” returns to the core plot with one new twist: as Queequeg falls deathly ill, he and Ishmael share a lovers’ duet that precedes everyone else’s doom, except Ishmael, called “The Pacific”, the last of four song highpoints. Regrettably, the book in between Ishmael and Queequeg's initial meeting and their final farewell doesn’t relate how their relationship developed. Malloy is covering so much of what Melville wrote and what Malloy himself imputes about it, where’s the room to develop a homo love story with everything else going on? Sadly, it’s only asserted.
Besides the integrity of the score, a major asset of the production is not only the casting but also the ensemble performances. Individually, special kudos to Mr. Choski who navigates between Melville’s Ishmael and Malloy’s Everyman version of him well enough given the unevenness of the script. Vocally, Mr. Choski never loses command, even when he’s struggling with a demanding score. Kudos too to Mr. Nalis who defines Ahab with resolute but manic authority. Costume design by Brenda Abbandolo who worked on Malloy’s “Octet” smartly combines 19thC forms with contemporary accent: her innovation of hoop skirts on actors playing ship captains provides subtle metaphor to all the obvious.
Mr. Malloy and Ms Chavkin have worked on “Moby Dick” for almost six years: expert and talented as they are, dramaturgy is in order. What’s more, if an adaptation of a classic, musical or otherwise, has contemporary political or social resonance, please don’t knock us over the head with it. Just dramatize. We’ll get it when it’s there all on our own.