Eric Simonson initially talked to Disney about his ambitious desire to turn Herman Melville’s epic novel into a stage musical. But as execs there must have concluded, whales are slippery creatures with an aversion to theatrical confinement. So Simonson’s “Moby Dick” ended up at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, sans water, waves or a credible whale. And despite copious amounts of directorial imagination, deft distillation of the big book and a laudable respect for Melville’s language, the resulting production still feels like its most interesting character just didn’t bother to show up.
Whenever a character unleashes a harpoon in the play, a fellow actor carries the weapon in flight. Fine. But where’s the target? It’s as if someone were doing “Jaws: The Musical” without the budget for a shark.
One would not be so troubled by this lack of a realistic — or effectively symbolic — solution to the depiction of Captain Ahab’s famous nemesis if the production were not otherwise so rooted in straight-arrow storytelling. Heaven knows, Melville’s complex novel certainly offers author and director Simonson the option of approaching the text in a much more stylized manner.
But while it has some imaginative touches and makes pleasurable use of folk and other music, Simonson’s approach still focuses on the basic narrative arc of the tale. Our narrator shows up on a whaler, where he finds an obsessed captain ready to eschew reason and all other considerations in favor of finding the monster that chowed down on his leg.
As Ahab, Steve Pickering rants and rails on the evils of blubber with laudable attention to detail. But for all his efforts (which feel uncharacteristically uncertain), Ahab still feels like a protagonist looking for the antagonist that would really sell the tickets.
On the plus side, the company has developed a workable show that turns a rough-and-tough novel into a drama accessible for the family. And auds likely will enjoy the hearty, back-slappin’ cast with its jaunty ship-ahoy antics. Despite this, Simonson clearly had a great deal of respect for its source, cutting and honing this difficult work while preserving a great deal of its literary dignity. Visuals from Kent Dorsey are also clever and pleasing to the eye.
But crass as it may seem, the show needs to show us a whale (somehow, somewhere) if it’s to become a viable production. Like the obsessed cap’n, we want to see the whites of its eyes and feel it blow water in our faces.