Arts theater review

In the belly of the whale

World premiere of cheeky, heartfelt, self-aware musical adaptation of ‘Moby-Dick’

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Stubb (Kalyn West) and Tashtego (Matt Kizer) hunt a whale aboard the Pequod in the American Repertory Theater's musical 'Moby-Dick.'
Courtesy of Maria Baranova

Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning
Story by Herman Melville
Music composed by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Loeb Drama Center
Dec. 3–Jan. 12

Call me... impressionable, but I would say, echoing D.H. Lawrence’s words about the source material, that this is “one of the strangest and most wonderful [musicals]” I’ve seen in recent times. 

In the spirit of the novel it’s based on, this four-part production packs an absolute bonanza of bizarre and beautiful things into a 3.5-hour multi-genre extravaganza. The first half is a self-proclaimed “vaudevillian” utopia: characters are introduced, whaling is glorified in song and dance, and the central conflict peeks its white head through the porthole. Pip’s incipient insanity at the beginning of the second half signals the onset of mental, moral, and spiritual decline aboard the Pequod. The mood blackens and one misses the halcyon days of Parts I and II.

Notoriously, Melville’s novel has large swaths of territory that aren’t directly relevant to the progress of the narrative. These include discourses on whale classification, both biological and culinary, and musings on America, democracy, human nature, and life at sea. This is territory that this production charts like an old pro and is reminiscent of Dave Malloy’s and Rachel Chavkin’s treatment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in their 2015 musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

The musical’s self-aware attitude smooths the transitions between these disparate acts, and some of the best pieces in this production result from such disjointed segments. One such chapter is the catalog of whales, which is adapted into the song “Cetology.” The cast emerges dressed as a veritable menagerie of the whales described by Melville, at least two per cast member. Ishmael serves as MC, reciting the litany and the themes that are symbolically explored by Melville by means of the cetaceans. 

The puppets and props designed and directed by Eric F. Avery are whimsical and resourceful. Just as in the musical composition, the set design is unified by a tasteful eclecticism: the creative use of plastic and other waste. As “this production is concerned with the most pressing themes of our time,” Avery wants to remind the viewers “of [their] own complicity in the problems.”

Just as each character has a role on the ship, each actor brings a unique talent to the show, making the motley array of musical compositions work. While there are classical Broadway songs, like “The Whale as a Dish/Cutting In,” the musical also features African American work songs, rap, scat singing, gospel, and stand-up comedy. This last one was brilliant: Fedallah (Eric Berryman), a vaguely menacing, barely fleshed-out character in the book, takes a stand and tells it like it is in some of the best self-referential humor in the show. Berryman makes fun of Melville’s portrayal of the exotic Middle Eastern man, the risible mysticism that surrounds Fedallah (“A turban made of his own white hair?” he curses as he tears it off indignantly), and the “wokeness” of the directors for cramming so many minorities into one show.

While most of the music and lyrics didn’t blow me out of the water, the singing and dancing were top-notch. Tom Nelis, as Ahab, had an absolutely gorgeous baritone voice, grave and warm, like a glowing ember or honeyed brass, somewhere in the lower range with the tubas. The sustained vibrato of Dawn L. Troupe, who played the captain of the various ships that the Pequod encounters, was lush and lulling, like the rocking of a ship. Queequeg’s (Andrew Cristi) vibrant and coquettish solo about cannibalism, “A Bosom Friend,” was a stand-out in terms of lyrics, causing upswells of laughter at refrains like “endo, exo, necro, homicidal,” meant to elucidate common misconceptions about cannibals. 

The pacing of the show suffered a little in Part III, which was entirely devoted to the plight of Pip. Even if seen as the symbolical conscience of the floating nation-state, the lopsided weight given to Pip’s tragedy upset the rhythm of the production. It would have been more interesting to see some of this time devoted to the internal struggles of Starbuck (Starr Busby) as he debates whether or not to mutiny against the increasingly mad, increasingly tyrannical Ahab. By the amount of time and psychological analysis they devote to him, the production implies that the least interesting character is Ahab.

Audience members have a chance to be immersed in the action when Ishmael solicits sixteen volunteers from the tiered seats that encircle the stage. The chosen don firetruck red ponchos, are towed in the rowboats, witness a whale hunt from the front row, and squeeze spermaceti while holding hands with the crew in “A Squeeze of the Hand.”

Scenic designer Mimi Lien, who also worked on Natasha, has pulled out all the stops in this production. The stage is simultaneously the interior of a ship’s hull and the deck, a deconstructivist ship à la Gehry and Koolhass’ lovechild. It houses an orchestra that spans three decks, ribs of the hull that ascend up the wall and undulate onto the ceiling above, and a two-staged mast that rises stage center. Ceci n’est pas un navire but a representation of a ship the way it comes across in fiction. The end product is a thing of theatrical ingenuity that manages to convey the novelistic origins of the story.

Even if they don’t think it consciously, one of the reasons people go to the theater is to be surprised, either by what they see, hear, learn, or feel. Multiple times throughout the night, I felt the warming surprise that comes from seeing something brilliant conjured from thin air. I felt it when trap doors opened in the polished wood flooring and full-sized rowboats on wheels came out. I felt it when the ribbing of the ship’s hull, so convincingly disguised as continuous planks of wood, curved upwards to allow the procession of whale-inspired puppets to parade past.

Perhaps Moby-Dick is one of those books that you plan to read someday but you just haven’t gotten around to it (and you also plan for it to remain that way for the rest of your life). Perhaps it’s associated with the scheduled ennui of high school English class. Or, perhaps, you are like the young narrator who opens the show, coming back again and again to this tale of the sea and obsession. Regardless of which slough of literary society you call home, this new musical will draw you in, maybe even literally if you so wish, to the great American tome.