Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: The ensemble of MOBY DICK! Photo by Oomphotography.
By Bec Willett
CYRANO DE BERGERAC, FRANKENSTEIN and now MOBY DICK. Everyone seems to be producing a classic and everyone else seems to have an opinion as to whether they should be. Yet no matter your point of view, it’s beyond coincidence that multiple theaters in our community – from the storefront to the mainstage, the well-resourced to the budget-friendly – have decided that at this particular time these works about fanaticism, hubris, deceit and vanity should be dusted off. As the election draws near there seems to be a growing desire to revisit the past to say: Look! See what happened before? It’s happening again? Are we going to let it? Remember. Remember. Remember.
Melville expert John Bryant describes MOBY DICK’s antagonist Ahab as ”democracy’s worst nightmare.” Albeit with a lighter tone, per the story it’s based on, The Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s production of MOBY DICK!: The Musical reminds us of this. Indeed, despite the classic core, this musical is anything but stuffy. Imagine instead a campy, candy-colored, tongue-in-cheek take that makes fun of anything it can get it hands on – dick jokes, anyone? The shallowly-constructed premise of a girls school (think St. Trinian’s), led by their headmistress (Peter Ruger), that must produce a musical of MOBY DICK to raise funds gives the show a shaky start. However, once we move into the meat of the tale – with the help of the impeccably-timed, hilariously melodramatic “A Man Happens” by Alexandra Cross (Esta) – the piece finds it feet.
Boho’s Heartland Studio is a small space for a straight play, so to put on a musical with a cast of nine in it is ambitious. However, director Donald Kolakowski embraces the space, wielding choreography that not only tells the story but uses the confines to frequently create delightful visual gags. With Shannon Melick’s multi-functional and open scenic design forming a cartoonish proxy of a school hall, the cast is able to move in and out of the space with ease, utilizing the space’s advantage of intimacy without it feeling cramped. Indeed, it’s because of these close quarters that when the few important moments of seriousness are highlighted, we are able to put aside the spectacle and invest without distraction.
Many of the most impactful moments – both serious and humorous – come from actors Hannah Mary Simpson and Kelsey Skomer. While as a whole this ensemble function as a well-oiled machine, individually the cast’s skill level in vocals, dance and acting ranges. The campy nature of the show itself makes some allowances for this but it remains that Skomer’s soaring voice and Simpson’s skill at grounded yet goofball comedy are what consistently engage and surprise and elevate the production as a whole.
The Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s of MOBY DICK!: The Musical by Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye is an ambitious production that harnesses the message of the original text while still providing a whole bunch o’ fun.
MOBY DICK! runs through December 1. For more information visit thecuckoostheaterproject.com.