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A CurtainUp Review

Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.— a quote from Sophocles' Antigone, which Dave Malloy used to preface his script.
(Top l to r) Kim Blanck, Starr Busby, Margo Seibert, Kuhoo Verma. (Bottom l to r) Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Adam Bashian, Alex Gibsonv(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Hat's off to the new Off Broadway musical Octet(at the Pershing Square Signature Center). Written by Dave Malloy, and directed by Annie Tippe, It is more original than most of the entertainments now on Broadway.

Octet is best described as a chamber choir musical. Performed by first-rate a cappella singers, it has a pristine sound that is rarely heard in contemporary musical theater pieces.

In an online interview, Octet's musical director Or Matias remarked on the unique character of an a capella work, pointing out that the performers don't have the safety net of an orchestra to accompany them as they sing but must rely on the sheer dexterity of their vocal cords and artistic instincts. Yes, it's a tall order, But, under Matias's able baton, they rise to the occasion and hit the right notes.

Octet greets the eye with a plain tableau and the ear with sublime harmonies. It is a concatenation of hymns, chants, dirges and a fugue, all interspersed with some stylized dance movements that are extensions of the music.

Set in a drab, church basement (set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta), Octet brings before us 8 persons who are suffering from some form of internet addiction. They belong to a group called the Friends of Saul, though Saul himself remains an enigma who can't be there due to some kind of coding difficulty. Paula (Starr Busby), a substitute leader, has taken over his duties for the present and is prepared to guide the group through the particulars of the meeting which follows the traditional 12-step program.

Paula begins the meeting in earnest by inviting everybody to sing the hymn, "The Forest." She cues them with a pitch pipe and lets their voices rise in unison. Beyond its aesthetic qualities, "The Forest" contains the tone and tenor of the whole musical. It is a meditation that takes one on a journey from an idyllic landscape ("The forest was beautiful/ My head was clean and clear") to a horrific one ("But now the woods are dark and cold/ Clogged with nettles and roots/ There is a monster/ And I am the monster . . "). Just as the group members start to lose themselves in the song, a shy newcomer Velma (Kuhoo Verma) enters the room and Paula gestures for her to join the circle.

The show clocks in at 100-minutes sans intermission, with individual group members ultimately sharing what they sees in this addiction and what it publicly means in their life.

There's Jessica (Margo Seibert) who's been shamed on the internet and is trying to recover from the trauma; Henry (Alex Gibson) who gets high on candy-themed video games; Paula (Busby) who has a stronger relationship with her technology than with her husband; Karly (Kim Blanck) who finds herself in a funk after experimenting with cyberdating; Ed (Adam Bashian) who took a wrong detour into internet porn; Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) who worries about how humans evolve in a technological world; Marvin (J. D. Mollison) who's a neurochemist who discovers that the internet has bottomless worm holes; and Velma (Verma) who's found unconditional love with a girl from Saint-Marie who remains utterly lonely in the here-and-now.

Fears are confessed and described. Obsessions are stated and parsed. But the real reason we get pulled into a particular story is that it uncannily articulates, at least to some extent, our own experiences with technology and the dangers it can pose to our human integrity.

According to an author's note inserted into the program, Malloy drew inspiration for Octet from several books, plays, movies, musical compositions, games about technology, mental health, spirituality, and Tarot. Although one might at first blush see his bibliography as just a filler in the program, it actually reveals why Octet has such an exciting pulse and speaks so poignantly to us. Besides, where else can you see the names of John Cage, Philip Glass, and Caryl Churchill on the same page with Candy Crush, Cookie Clicker, and Universal Paperclips?

Having seen Malloy's Preludes that spotlighted the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and his Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet that dramatized a swath of War and Peace, I was surprised at first by the stark simplicity of Octet. Yet, as the piece progressed, and the a cappella singing swelled into every nook and cranny of the theater, I was reminded that it's not the frills that makes a work hum but the message embedded beneath its surface. And what could be a more powerful message today than the one that Octet offers?

Malloy prefaces his script with a quote from Sophocles Antigone: "Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse." Indeed, this nugget of wisdom strongly resonates with Octet, which refers to our technological devices with the unflattering sobriquet,"the Monster." Could Malloy be hinting that our hi-tech gadgets pose the same dilemma that confronted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein after he created his "monster" and found that it outstripped his own human strength?

Octet arrives at the Signature with the immediate distinction of being the first musical staged at this beloved institution. But theatergoers are more likely to remember it for its down-to-earth message about unplugging from one's hi-tech devices for a while to truly reconnect with people and reawaken to the wonders of the human voice.

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Music, lyrics and book by Dave Malloy
Directed by Annie Tippe
Cast: Adam Bashian (Ed), Kim Blanck (Karly), Starr Busby (Paula), Alex Gibson (Henry), Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), J.D. Mollison (Marvin), Margo Seibert (Jessica) and Kuhoo Verma (Velma).
Music supervision and music direction by Or Matias
Scenic design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta
Lighting by Christopher Bowser
Sound by Hidenori Nakajo
Production stage manager: Jhanae Bonnick
Running Time:1 hour and 40 minutes
Pershing Square Signature Center
From 4/30/19; opening 5/19/19; closing 6/23/19-- and extended to 6/30/19.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan 5/25/19

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