Moby-Dick is either a long, elaborate funeral for the American musical as we know it or the birth of a new kind of theatrical language. Which side you come down on will depend on your reaction to this world premiere musical, which runs at the American Repertory Theater through Jan 12.
This mammoth, vitally eclectic “musical reckoning” was co-developed by Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, the pair whose drop-dead brilliant Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 ran at the ART exactly four years ago before transferring to Broadway and racking up 12 Tony nominations in the process. Now, as then, Malloy has written the music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations for Moby-Dick, and Chavkin—fresh off a Tony win for Broadway’s Hadestown—is again at the helm.
Between The Great Comet and Moby-Dick, it doesn’t seem too premature to wonder if Chavkin and Malloy might not be the most influential theatrical duo since Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, who revolutionized the American musical in the 1970s with Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd.
Whereas The Great Comet was based on a small, 70-page section of War and Peace—another very long novel—Moby-Dick takes on more of Melville’s novel, which has resulted in a three-and-a-half-hour-long experience that blurs the lines between theater, vaudeville, performance art, stand-up comedy, and even worship, not to mention gender and race.
Ishmael is our narrator, played by the appealing Manik Choksi, but this is a resolutely modern-day Ishmael, a person of today carrying around a copy of Melville’s great novel. He confides in us that he doesn’t feel safe in this country anymore, a country that is a sprawling mess, just like Moby-Dick. Looking to the novel for both comfort and escape, he casts himself as Ishmael and casts the rest of the Pequod like the America he wants to see, full of men and women of color. (Only one role, Ahab, is played by a white actor, a striking, eerie Tom Nelis).
It’s a risky meta-theatrical gamble that pays off, one that successfully makes Moby-Dick both a story and a production that is resolutely of our time. The action of the actual story is broken several times throughout this four-part musical, most notably in the second part, which tackles the famously long and boring whale parts of the novel. There’s a ridiculous parade of whale puppets (designed by Eric F. Avery) made from recycled materials to tackle the cetology segment, and audience members are brought onstage and encouraged to dip their hands into buckets to help squeeze some whale sperm—so be careful about volunteering. There’s also a segment about chopping up and eating whales, with blood and guts splashed all over the stage, including on a white marble bust of Melville himself.
Then there’s the introduction of Fedallah, played by the excellent Eric Berryman, the exotic prophet on board the Pequod, who in a turban and Nikes uses stand-up comedy as a way to address… well, just about everything, from the race of his character to the state of America and even the musical itself. “What the fuck even is this thing,” he says as he rips his turban off. “Allah forbid I be a real man.” He even goes after Malloy and Chavkin, tearing into their “color-conscious fucking casting” as a ploy to win awards.
If this all sounds nuts, that’s because it is. Moby-Dick will be a controversial musical, one that purists of both the novel and the art form may recoil from. But from Mimi Lien’s ship-like set that has taken over the Loeb Drama Center and Bradley King’s extraordinary lighting design, to Malloy’s tapestry-like score and Chavkin’s daring and picturesque direction, Moby-Dick is a marvel in every way.
In fashioning a Moby-Dick musical that is true to both the scope and style of Melville’s novel, as well as to the challenges and climate of our world—and the ever-expanding potential of what theater can be—Chavkin and Malloy are creating groundbreaking work as if the future of the American theater is dependent upon it.
That’s because it is.
MOBY-DICK. THROUGH 1.12 AT THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG