A composer who can’t finish his grand opera and a sea captain who can’t conquer the great white whale are the twin subjects of Rinde Eckert’s new musical “And God Created Great Whales.” A performance artist, Eckert prefers the words “music theater piece” to “musical,” which should give some clue as to the portentousness of this enterprise. “And God Created Great Whales” is almost always more intriguing in concept than execution, at least as presented here with Eckert center stage for the duration of a work he has conceived and composed.
The comparisons between a piano tuner named Nathan, who valiantly attempts to complete his opera “Moby Dick” as his mental facilities fail him, and Melville’s very own Ahab, who “wishes to be whole … to complete himself, retrieve the missing parts,” are best pieced together post-performance in a very long cab ride home. If all elements never quite congeal into a satisfactory whole under David Schweizer’s direction, there is always the appeal of Kevin Adams’ set, featuring a grand piano wrapped in seaman’s rope, ready to be hoisted skyward.
In the opening moments of “Great Whales,” Nathan punches a tape recorder to hear his own voice telling him, “You are suffering memory loss. You are listening to a set of instructions you put together to help you continue. … Today you will continue to work on your opera, ‘Moby Dick.’ It is the tale of one man’s obsession with a large, white whale.”
The recording goes on to remind Nathan that he shares his work space with a woman, a.k.a. the Muse, who is a product of his own imagination. Unfortunately, Eckert is no more successful at creating a character named the Muse than the many artists who have preceded him, the possible exception being Albert Brooks, who recently had Sharon Stone to give much needed flesh to his fancy.
As played by Nora Cole, the Muse of “Great Whales” is standard-issue cheerleader. She is said to motivate Nathan in his own personal obsession, but Cole’s generic sprite — complete with feather headdress by costume designer Clint E.B. Ramos — is the antithesis of inspired. What Cole does possess is an exquisite soprano, and when she sings, the music can soar.
Despite his avant-garde pedigree, Eckert isn’t adverse to lacing his post-modern score with considerable melody; more often, the arias sink under the composer’s own pedestrian baritone, a wobbly and woolly-sounding instrument that is pressed way beyond its natural range when giving voice to the rants of Ahab and Father Mapple, the reverend who urges Melville’s sailors to “sing out over the railing, raging wind that thou art the cause and substance of this storm and its only cure.”
The incendiary fury of Melville’s poetry provides a poignant counterpoint to Nathan’s necessarily cold, methodical approach to completing his opus. “Perhaps the soul lives on in the products of the mind,” he wonders in one of his lucid moments. Yet it is the mechanical precision of a tape recorder that keeps his increasingly scrambled mind on track to immortality. At one point, his voice on the tape reminds him of the inherent qualities of various musical instruments: The oboe, for example, is good at imitating exotic birds; the bassoon, funny birds.
Nathan’s musical retelling of “Moby Dick” at times seems as long and arduous as reading “Moby Dick” aloud. You may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wishing the lead character’s mind would deteriorate a tad more rapidly and be done with it.