Over the past 10 years the traditional advice for young writers to “write what you know” has paid off nicely in musical theater with hits like Avenue Q and Rent. Like Rent's updating of Puccini's La Bohème, the new musical Keep Ishmael sets its story of angst among the unfulfilled and underemployed in an updating of a classic - in this case, Melville's Moby Dick. It's a more deliberate and explicit updating of its inspiration than was Rent, and it suffers from not quite deciding if it wants to be a satire of the novel or a more straightforward comedy of life among college-educated youth working in retail and service industries.
Ishmael's premise sounds better than it plays. A group of four twentysomething friends living with their parents in suburban Chicago all quit their menial jobs on the same day and head to Alaska to work on a fishing boat. The four include Izzy (short for Ishmael), his framing store co-worker Andy (nicknamed A-Train), Izzy's ex-girlfriend “Q” (for Quinetta, apparently a reference to the Melville character Queequeg); and Donald, who manages a Starbucks, earning him the nickname “Starbuck” (the First Mate of the S.S. Pequod in the novel). En route to Alaska, Andy hijacks the group to San Diego so he can pursue the girl who dumped him when she chose to move to California and work at Sea World. In a jealous rage when his ex declares her preference for Sea World's Shamu over Andy, Andy attempts to kill Shamu, who escapes into the ocean. Andy and the gang follow Shamu up the Pacific Coast in a tall ship apparently hijacked from San Diego's Maritime Museum. On board, Andy goes mad, assumes the personality of Moby Dick's Captain Ahab (Ahab/A-Train, get it?) and becomes consumed by a desire to catch the whale.
There could have some fun in this concept, but it takes book writer/lyricist Mat Smart all of the first act to set up the premise, and after he does he doesn't stick with the lampooning of the classic long enough to capitalize on it. He has the right sort of actor for A-Train in Jonathan Wagner, who has a Jack Black-ian appearance and sensibility that's perfect for the crazed, spurned lover. Any momentum Wagner is able to generate, though, is quickly shut out when the script switches to love scenes between Izzy and Q, or to a gay courtship between Starbuck and the stalwart First Mate Stewart, who is more directly modeled after the Starbuck character of the novel. At other times, the text of the novel is played straight, adding a third tone to the first two.
Smart's decision to set his characters initially in his hometown of Naperville, Illinois was not just a matter of writing what he knew. Naperville's 1997 designation as “one of America's best places to raise a kid” is shown to have placed a special pressure on its children by suggesting kids raised in such an advantageous environment ought to grow up to be exceptional adults. That the products of such an idyllic childhood might need to endure a life-threatening and life-altering journey before finding their life purpose is a valid premise, but it's one of a few too many ideas for this one show.
Additionally, there aren't a lot of bona fide fun musical theater moments in the piece, largely because the music by Ethan Deppe doesn't offer much in the way of melody or interesting or surprising harmonies. Ishmael is billed as a rock musical but the score doesn't quite rock, either. There's a passable ballad for Izzy and Q (“Listen”), but that's about it. The opening number, “Frames,” sets up the characters and their unhappiness serving rude customers and clueless bosses and goes on for some ten minutes. Note to Mssrs. Smart and Deppe: it was tough enough for Stephen Sondheim to pull off an opening like that in Into the Woods and it nearly stops that show dead in its tracks, even with material more clever and surprising than the jokes about Starbucks soy lattes in this number.
White Horse has made its mark by providing a platform for young musical theater talent in pieces that are age-appropriate for its artists. Though their performers have worked in the past with stronger material than Keep Ishmael, this cast's talents shine through. Jonathan Wagner as A-Train is the standout, but there's not a weak link in the group. Nick Mills as Izzy and Casey Campbell as Starbuck do what they can with the little Smart's book gives them, and they have strong singing voices, as does Tawny Newsome, who displays a nice gift for understatement in her book scenes. Jeremy Trager shows versatility in covering a number of comic parts in the first act and Stewart in the second. Director Evan Cabnet keeps the action moving throughout.
The White Horse Theatre Company production of Keep Ishmael will be performed at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, through September 16, 2006. Show times are Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased by calling the Theatre Building Chicago box office at (773) 327-5252 or online at www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit www.whitehorsetheatre.com.