Call “Moby-Dick” Herman Melville’s sublime response to the Book of Jonah. After all, the whaler Pequod’s crew proves as diverse as that of the ship on which the Jewish prophet tried to hide away from divine demands. Melville pays ample attention to the theme of tolerance (Jonah and his fellow passengers) as well as Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the title leviathan. Composer-author Dave Molloy and director Rachel Chavkin – add already an inspired team at American Repertory Theater – are on Broadway with the Tolstoy adaptation “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (from “War and Peace”). Now, Molloy and Chavkin mean to recognize the prescient 1851 novel’s Lincoln-esque call for human unity in their latest Loeb Drama Center collaboration. Their well-helmed effort has enough talented crew to make its rafter-reaching ship fully ocean-worthy. What it needs is some harpoon-sharp tweaking to fully resonate in an age of dangerous division.
As in the case of “Natasha, Pierre,” audience members are likely to sense that they are on the threshold of something special. The production’s thrust stage approach and designer Mimi Lien’s hovering Pequod – an elegant wood construct – combine to turn theatergoers into fellow shipmates. In fact, in a nod to interactive theater, volunteering audience members don ponchos, enter four small stage boats and even join cast members in a visually striking sequence involving whale sperm. Most of all, there is the care that Molloy and Chavkin have brought to this long (almost three and a half hours, including a five-minute pause and a 15-minute intermission) but always absorbing production.
It is more than safe to say that Melville himself – represented here by a handsome sculpted bust – would approve of their attention to the timeliness and timelessness of “Moby-Dick”’s sweeping call for human solidarity and respect for difference. That attention soars from the start in Father Mapple’s Bible-referencing sermon. In a snappy song that calls to mind the Gershwin winner “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from the opera “Porgy and Bess,” a telling refrain goes, “God spoke to Jonah in his head.” A line recalling Jonah’s early situation notes, “We are all in the belly of the whale.”
Throughout Molloy’s careful adaptation, the same goes for Ishmael and Pacific Islander Queequeg. Initially, narrator Ishmael declares, “I don’t want to sleep with a cannibal.” Yet when they do actually share a bed, the latter not only displays remarkable gentility toward him, but also relates to Ishmael as though they were a couple. As in Melville’s singular description of their easy intimacy, Molloy’s script speaks of their closeness with the novel’s comparison to a husband and a wife.
Under Chavkin’s painstaking direction, the novel’s rich mix – Ishmael’s narrative, the ship’s multiethnic crew, Melville’s detailing of a diversity of whales, and the biblical themes in the novel’s intricate tapestry, among others – comes vividly to life. Manik Choksi has all of Ishmael’s contrasting vulnerability and strength of will as a survivor clinging tenaciously to Queequeg’s coffin as a life buoy. His close moments with Andrew Cristi’s majestic Queequeg – whether simple bromance or subtle love – are instantly affecting.
Ishmael’s “Cetology” – an exhaustively detailed section of the novel – proves both humorous and entertaining here as Eric F. Avery’s imaginative puppets circle in a sequence that may bring to mind the more dramatic procession of animals in “The Lion King.”
In the production’s strikingly gender-bending cast, Starr Busby properly projects first mate Starbuck’s realistic and well-grounded approach to life, while Kalyn West captures second mate Stubb’s more emotional demeanor. Morgan Siobhan Green as forlorn young Pip finds all of the pathos and quiet power of his post-intermission ballad. Tom Nelis as vindictive Captain Ahab – who shares a name, of course, with the evil Jewish king – could do with more menace in the early going, but summons the right ferocity for the arresting three-day “Chase.” Hidenori Nakajo’s strong sound design evokes the momentousness of this ultimate clash between humanity and nature.
Is a brilliant adaptation of Melville’s great American novel as elusive as the Great White Whale? Frankly, the interactivity with volunteers packs more cutesiness than substance, and some judicious trimming would help. Even so, “Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning” is an inspired work well on its way to high-sailing greatness.
“Moby-Dick: A Musical Reckoning,” American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 12, 2020. 617-547-8300 or amrep.org.