Theater Review: A Musical “Moby-Dick” Lumbers from its Seabed at the A.R.T.

By Christopher Caggiano

Dave Malloy’s musical version of Moby-Dick shows promise, but he needs to trim plenty of blubber.

Manik Choksi and the company of Moby-Dick at the American Repertory Theater. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning, based on Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Developed with and directed with Rachel Chavkin. Music direction and supervision by Or Matias. Choreography by Chanel DaSilva. Produced by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through January 12, 2020.

One thing we can say for sure about Dave Malloy is that the man loves a challenge. And compendious literary masterpieces as well.

Malloy wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, one of the towering achievements in contemporary musical theater, which unfortunately foundered on Broadway in 2016 owing to an inept producing team. The Great Comet was based on no less a source than Tolstoy’s rightly revered War and Peace. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Malloy would set his sights on another literary classic, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

You’d think, however, that Malloy would have learned the primary lesson of his own masterwork: don’t try to do the entire book. The Great Comet focuses on a mere 70 of Tolstoy’s 1,200 pages, and as such can take its time setting up and developing its rich and fascinating characters.

Malloy’s Moby-Dick, to its detriment, tries to relate the entire story of Captain Ahab and the eponymous whale himself. And even though the novel Moby-Dick — at 585 pages — is less than half the length of Tolstoy’s epic tome, Malloy’s musical version clocks in at a derrière-busting three-and-a-half hours. The good news is that there’s enough good material in Moby-Dick to justify additional work on the piece, and that it should be fairly easy to cut the piece down by at least 45 minutes.

The production starts with the famous Jonah and the whale sermon from the book, followed by an extended scene that introduces us to the narrator Ishmael as well as Malloy’s meta conceit for the show. In the scene, our narrator, played with great appeal by Manik Choksi, provides background about Melville’s tempestuous relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as Choksi’s own reasons for revisiting the novel, as a Southern Asian man in Trump’s America. “I just don’t feel really safe in this country right now,” he says, “so I returned to my favorite book.” (This is just the start of a number of contemporary parallels Malloy attempts to force upon the narrative)

Those first two scenes represent about 10 to 15 minutes of unnecessary stage time that could be easily excised with one chop. Also of questionable relevance is an extended scene at the top of the second half that relates the sad, extended tale of the cabin boy Pip, but in a manner that is irritating, pretentious, and wildly out of character with the rest of the production. There’s another 15 minutes than can easily go.

Malloy’s score for Moby-Dick is thankfully more akin to his rich and ravishing score to The Great Comet than it is to those for his other unfortunate works, the execrable Beowulf (2008), the maddeningly opaque Ghost Quartet (2014), the forgettable Preludes (2015), and the marginally engaging Octet (2019). The Moby-Dick score is self-consciously eclectic, with styles ranging from contemporary pop to opera to hip-hop to gospel. Many of the more lyrical passages are reminiscent of two of his best songs from The Great Comet, the threnodic “Dust and Ashes” and the show’s rapturous finale.

Going after the White Whale in Moby-Dick at the American Repertory Theater. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Moby-Dick works best as a play when the piece is focusing on the central drama. The dramatic stakes of the show really pick up when the tensions kick in between the stormy madness of Ahab (played here with laser-like intensity by Tom Nelis) and the stabilizing influence of Starbuck. The scene in which the captain of the Rachel, a passing ship, seeks but is denied the Pequod’s help in searching for a lost whaling party is positively heartrending.

Unfortunately, Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin have seen fit to pad the production with a plethora of would-be enlivening interludes, including a considerable amount of audience participation. These exaggeratedly comedic scenes poke fun at the infamous Moby-Dick chapters about whale history, blubber, and the like, or they try to wedge modern resonances into a production that more often than not feels like a Renaissance fair.

The audience participation comes off as cloying in a story of such narrative weight. There’s some charm and enjoyment to be had during these narrative interruptions, but the vaudeville shtick gets old, and when I saw the show on opening night, these efforts were met more with scattered nervous giggles rather than guffaws. (Although there was a small but vociferous claque of what appeared to be A.R.T. insiders providing ill-advised and ear-piercing shrieks of support. Is this sort of thing ever a good idea?)

Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on and


  1. Ollie Hallowell on December 20, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    I think the main reason I wanted to go was that I had heard such good things about Malloy’s War and Piece adaptation a couple of years ago, and I was so sorry I missed it. I had no idea that this was going to be multi-cultural, diverse, even non-binary extravaganza, superficially related to Melville’s masterpiece. The lowest moment (well, more than a moment) was when a black character in a turban and robe appears on the Pequod, takes off the ridiculous costume to reveal himself as an angry black guy in urban street clothes. He then delivers a hip and bitterly comic monologue about racism, religion, political injustice, and other non-Melvillian themes.

    Another low moment was when Ishmael, in what I think is called “breaking the fourth wall,” turns to the audience and asks for a round of applause for the inventive puppets we have just seen on stage. And I thought the puppets were just awful. For some reason I think, symbolically, they were meant to be awful, but seeing crummy puppets just didn’t do it for me.

    There’s what I consider an underrated theater group in town called The Gold Dust Orphans. Ever since their inception, their productions have been so much more “diverse” than anything I’ve ever seen at the A.R.T., but that’s never been the whole point of their productions. I also think the GDO group is so much more inventive, original, not to mention entertaining and fun.

    Oh, there was certainly stuff I admired about M-D. Just to mention one thing, I thought the set was remarkably good. The theater was beautifully transformed so it felt like you were inside a whaling ship. I would have enjoyed the pre-show atmosphere more if there hadn’t been the over-amplified playing of sea shanties. Fortunately there was a bar in the lobby.

    • Chris Caggiano on December 21, 2019 at 5:15 am

      Thanks so much for your parallel review. Honestly, you filled in a lot of the detail that I didn’t have room for, and I genuinely appreciate that.

      You bring up a very important point: the ART can no longer be counted on as a bastion of experimental theater. Diane Paulus has turned it into a money machine, and the patently commercial programming has at times been embarrassing. I mean, Finding Neverland? Come on.

      • Kathleen on December 29, 2019 at 12:23 pm

        So glad someone else thought Finding Neverland was embarrassing. Ugh. Thanks for the review.

  2. Michael Connolly on December 26, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Both the review and Hallowell’s response are on target. I saw the show on December 6 with my partner, brother and his partner. We all agreed that the show has potential. The sequence where audience members careen around in aquatic bumper cars seemed extraneous at best and the comic tirade against racism was well done but jarring in its lack of connection to the play’s dramatic movement. Neither review mentions the gender fluidity of the casting which worked quite well and deepened the sense of otherness and view-from-the margins that pervades Malloy’s production.

    • Chris Caggiano on December 27, 2019 at 7:07 pm

      Excellent points, Michael. The casting is both gender-fluid and color-conscious, both of which add to the modern resonance of the story. I genuinely hope that Malloy continues to work on Moby-Dick. There were so many stunning moments, rich in character, situation, and intense emotion. Perhaps if Malloy focuses in on those moments and less on the shtick, there might be a really strong work in the making here.

  3. Glenn Rifkin on December 28, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Chris was way too kind to this gigantic stink of a show. It takes a special kind of awful for me to walk out at intermission, but walk out I did, without hesitation. My wife and I were astounded at how truly terrible this was, given how much we loved Pierre and Natasha. I agree with Ollie’s comments above and I will add that the fellow playing Ishmael was frightfully bad and could not hit a note in any of the numbers we saw. It was cringe worthy when he sounded like an earnest third-grader in the school play but was so off-key as to be embarrassing. The musical score was atonal, dissonant and remarkably off-putting for the team that did Pierre and Natasha. The nonsensical Disneyland boats taking befuddled audience members covered in silly red tarps around the stage was interminable and simply added more time to an already interminable production. Ditto the inexplicable, foul-mouthed, stand-up routine that popped up in middle of the show and wasted even more time.

    I love what Diane Paulus has done at the ART and the idea of pushing the envelope on new material is to be applauded. But when it fails like this, it is unwatchable. And it does a serious disservice to a classic piece of literature that deserves better.

    • Chris Caggiano on December 28, 2019 at 4:04 pm

      Glenn, no one yet ever accused me of being kind as a critic. 🙂

      You make some excellent points, not all of which I agree with. But I would like to stand up for Manik Choksi as Ishmael. I’ve seen Choksi in numerous productions and he has a fine voice. I did notice that he seemed off-key in many of his solo moments, but I chalked that up to the orchestrations, which provided him with no vocal support and created what appeared to be intensional dissonance in the overall sound. This amounts to a genuine disservice to Choksi and his abilities.

  4. mark m on December 29, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Saw this last night and left befuddled. This show does not know what it wants to be. Is it a telling of the story of Moby Dick? Is it a comment on the novel called Moby Dick? Who knows?

    This seems like it is in the spaghetti phase of development. Meaning they are just throwing everything into it and see what sticks. A lot of the ideas seem juvenile, artsy just to be artsy, or lacking in any subtly at all.

    I also agree with the review above in that any goodwill that came out of the first act was killed at the start of the second act with the inane storytelling device they used for Pip. Not only was it painful to watch and listen to, but at the end the person sitting next to me said: “I am not sure if Pip died or not”.

    The actors were game and did their best, but poor decision making and a healthy edit is needed if this play is going to have any sort of legs.

  5. Geoffrey Tegnell on January 3, 2020 at 11:29 pm

    I totally disagree with this picky review. First, anyone who has read the novel would know that portraying only a section of the book would abandon the tragic arc of the story, how Ahab’s monomania leads to a catastrophic culmination, Second, the Cetology scenes are indeed a fascinating Americana digression in this novel made amusing light of by means of the puppet show a venerated theatrical device, vide Lion King and Punch and Judy. Third, the first two scenes introduce the characters who populate this story, originally men from diverse background, formerly enslaved, Maoris, native Americans, Africans, hired by the inner-light-inspired Quaker ship owners and played by non-traditionally cast males and females. This strikes me as powerful witnessing about the inclusiveness of the American experiment. And thirdly why be grumpy about audience participation? I think of The Putnam County Spelling Bee, Peter Pan, Mamma Mia, Drowsy Chaperone, and The Rocky Horror Show. The volunteers I observed were excited and delighted to be on the stage and take part in the production. Fourthly, I will end by addressing the impact of the emotional intensity of the production. Scenes like Ishmael’s bedding with the cannibal Queequeg, Ahab’s mystification of the Pequod crew, Starbuck’s futile attempts to prevent the disaster, the abandonment of Pip, the captain of the Rebecca begging for Ahab to search for “my boy,” and the final all-encompassing destruction (a prevision of a coming Civil War occasioned by monomania about slavery) all seemed to strike resonant emotional chords in the audience with whom I attended the show. I loved Mr. Malloy’s well researched, playful, daring, expertly acted, beautifully composed, and creatively staged show and advise those who haven’t seen it to do so forthwith.

    • Jeff K. on January 4, 2020 at 11:59 am

      I totally agree with G.T.. I saw the production twice. The first time I was blown away by the vocal talent and the buzz saw musical segues. (And the puppet creator’s use of recycled material was brilliant.) The second time (with better seats) I was able to hear more of the lyrics and to sit back and let the music wash over me. Yes, it is a long evening. Yes, it is awash in camp and satire. But I would not be exaggerating in saying that Moby Dick was the most enjoyable and engrossing musical theater production I have ever experienced. It is more than deserving of a Broadway run, and dare I say, a Pulitzer Prize.

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