There is a telling vignette toward the beginning of Laurie Anderson's hugely ambitious 98-minute techno opera on the theme of Herman Melville's whale of a book, "Moby Dick." For the first time, Anderson's performance art is focusing upon something other than her own wry, irreverent world view -- a high-powered departure from her past tours.

There is a telling vignette toward the beginning of Laurie Anderson’s hugely ambitious 98-minute techno opera on the theme of Herman Melville’s whale of a book, “Moby Dick.” After she plays a brooding threnody on her violin, electronically blown up to sound like a string orchestra, and summarizes the book’s opening meditation on the landscape of lower Manhattan, she turns around to face the daunting projection of Melville’s text on the screen. She appears awed, worshipful, perhaps even intimidated. For the first time, Anderson’s performance art is focusing upon something other than her own wry, irreverent world view — a high-powered departure from her past tours.

No longer a one-woman show, Anderson populates her high-tech stage with a supporting cast — a bass player (Skuli Sverrisson) and four male singing actors who take on several roles of shipboard characters (one of them, Miles Green, sang one number with a delivery a lot like that of Anderson’s companion, Lou Reed). Yet at the same time, her multiple-threat talents have never been so thoroughly exploited — as a composer, violinist, keyboardist, rhythm guitarist, singer, speaker in several timbres, and manipulator of a tube-shaped, sampler-like instrument called the Talking Stick that produced masses of richly textured sound.

After the brilliantly evocative opening images of the sea and text, the Anderson that the avant garde has come to relish finally emerges on a huge, white easy chair, spinning her trademark archly funny parallel takes on “Moby Dick.” Yet contrary to some of the advance reports, there is surprisingly little of this commentary throughout the piece — and as a result, she doesn’t connect with her audience as directly or as endearingly as she has in previous shows.

But there is musical invention, energy and visually arresting razzle-dazzle aplenty in this piece, the sounds often coming from a contemporary pop base. Tom Nelis’ histrionic opening rants as Ahab are offset by a hilariously funky acid-jazz groove, though his long, dark soliloquy later on looked and felt more like something from a Disneyland ride. A good deal of the work was underscored by various drones, effectively evoking the meditative qualities of a sea voyage — and the piece has an archlike shape, veering off like Melville into various whaling arcana, coming to a neat, subdued conclusion.

For all of its diversity and occasionally baffling passages, it is a more smoothly integrated package than many a contemporary theater piece or opera. And despite the overwhelming monumentality and mystery of her subject, Anderson’s unique personality manages to stay just above the waves.

Laurie Anderson: Songs And Stories From Moby Dick

Royce Hall, UCLA; 1,838 seats, $40 top

Production

Presented by UCLA Performing Arts. Reviewed Oct. 20, 1999. Closes Oct. 23.

Cast

Performers: Laurie Anderson, Skuli Sverrisson, Tom Nelis, Price Waldman, Anthony Turner, Miles Green.
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