Theater review by Adam Feldman
Dave Malloy never stops surprising you. His songs start in one mode, then veer into another and another; his bridges lead to whole new roads. In his splendidly wrought new musical, Octet—performed nearly completely a capella, with rare exceptions (pitch pipes, a tambourine, a mallet, some chairs)—the auteur of the stylistically panoramic Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and the eerie Ghost Quartet invites us to an intense meeting in a church basement, convened under enigmatic circumstances by an unseen man named Saul. The eight attendees have gathered to explore their addictions to the internet (“the monster”), and at first, the structure is episodic and confessional: Jessica (Margo Seibert) sings about the trauma of starring in an infamous viral video; Henry (Alex Gibson) chews over his obsession with Candy Crush; group leader Paula (Starr Busby) reflects on the toll that smartphones have taken on her marriage. For a while, it seems like this is what Octet will be: A Chorus Online. But the show gets progressively spikier and weirder.
As Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (Adam Bashian, his bass voice plumbing the depths of depression) sing about sex, and Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) about paranoia, the musical’s universe expands beyond the basement, building to a monologue about God, by Marvin (J.D. Mollison), that explodes into full-on magical realism (or at least, per Clarke’s third law, sufficiently advanced technological realism). And just when it seems like Malloy might be wagging his finger a little too hard at the perils of modern life, he gives us a touching solo—the show’s only one—about the connections that the internet makes possible, sung by group newbie Velma (Kuhoo Verma). Under Annie Tippe’s taut direction, all eight bits of Octet’s byte-size cast perform Malloy’s challenging compositions with exceptional skill, abetted by Or Matias’s musical direction and Hidenori Nakajo’s sound design. As Broadway shows increasingly rely on massive spectacle, Octet proves that well-polished pieces of eight are enough.
Signature Theatre (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy. Directed by Annie Tippe. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
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