'Octet': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
The cast of 'Octet'
Always interesting, but goes a little far afield.
6/30/2019

Eight people describe their internet addictions in the new musical by Dave Malloy, creator of 'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.'

You'll think twice before reflexively checking your cellphone upon leaving the new musical by Dave Malloy. The latest work from the acclaimed, prolific composer responsible for such musicals as Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Ghost Quartet and Preludes, among others, concerns society's ever-growing addiction to the internet and social media. Octet, for which he wrote the book, lyrics, music and vocal arrangements, is a thoughtful, if simultaneously overstuffed and underdramatized, exploration of an issue that couldn't be more relevant.

The show, representing the first musical ever presented by off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, is set in a nondescript church basement where the members of a support group have gathered for their weekly meeting. The event is being led by one of the group's members because its regular host is apparently dealing with a "coding emergency."

The group is composed of people who suffer from one form of internet addiction or another, including, as one person explains, "recreational," "financial," "social," "sexual" and "informational." (How much you'll get out of the show probably depends upon how many of these categories you fall into.) Each participant describes his or her issues in songs and monologues, the former consisting of seven solo and five group numbers. All are sung a cappella, accompanied only by handclaps and other forms of percussion, with the singers playing notes on pitch pipes before they begin.

We're introduced to such characters as Jessica (Margo Seibert), who's obsessed with the reactions she garners on social media. "You've all seen my 'white woman goes crazy' video," she comments to the others. Henry (Alex Gibson) is addicted to video games, particularly those of a certain kind: "All the games I like have candy in them." Paula (Starr Busby) describes how the internet has affected nights with her husband, lamenting, "Our circadian rhythms, corrupted by the sallow blue glow of a screen." Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (Adam Bashian) navigate the new world of dating apps. "So many men in my pocket, I roll through my infinite scroll," she boasts.

Each of the dozen songs is linked to a tarot card, and if you're wondering why, I'm at a loss to explain it. It's indicative of Molloy's overreaching, as is his program note in which he lists dozens of inspirations for the show including texts by Rumi, Walt Whitman and Alan Watts; musicals including A Chorus Line and Company; films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix and My Dinner With Andre (certainly the first time those titles have appeared in a group); and various podcasts, games and musical compositions.

The show fairly bursts at the seams to include themes relating to religion, mysticism, philosophy and science via such episodes as when Marvin (J.D. Mollison), a "devout atheist," recounts how he was contacted by God, who first spoke to him online and then appeared in the guise of an 11-year-old girl wearing a mermaid costume. It's one of several instances in which Molloy seems to let his ideas get away from him.

The repetitive structure eventually becomes wearisome, with the lack of dramatic action preventing the piece from engaging the heart as well as the mind and the sketchily defined characters seeming to serve mainly as a checklist of various internet addictions. The composer's talents, however, are on ample display in his stirring music and intricate, frequently polyphonic arrangements (Or Matias deserves kudos for his music direction and supervision as well). The performers handle the complex, a cappella material beautifully, which is no mean feat considering the dense verbiage of the lyrics, while also demonstrating crack comic timing.

The small Signature space fits the show perfectly, providing an intimacy that helps the audience connect with the characters. Annie Tippe's unfussy staging and the ultrarealistic scenic design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are also very effective.  

Octet ultimately doesn't live up to its considerable artistic ambitions, but the show once again reveals its writer-composer to be one of the most creatively audacious talents working in musical theater today. It makes one eager to see what his restless mind comes up with next, assuming that he, unlike his characters, has enough self-control to unplug once in a while.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Starr Busby, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Margo Seibert, Kuhoo Verma
Music, lyrics, book, vocal arrangements: Dave Malloy
Director: Annie Tippe
Music director: Or Matias
Set designers: Amy Rubin, Brittany Vasta
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Lighting designer: Christopher Bowser
Sound designer: Hidenori Nakajo
Presented by Signature Theatre