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Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 19, 2019

(Top l to r) Kim Blanck, Starr Busby, Margo Seibert, Kuhoo Verma.
(Bottom l to r) Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Adam Bashian, Alex Gibson
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, where Dave Malloy's new a cappella musical Octet is currently playing, has been transformed into a church basement that could be anywhere in the United States. As audience members enter, they walk past a bulletin board with layers and layers of community announcements, odd-jobs advertisements, and social-gathering notices. There are at least two hymn boards prominently displayed, folding chairs and tables that have seen better days, and inspirational messages posted throughout the communal space. Impeccably designed by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, the setting provides the context for a meeting of an addiction support group, and the surroundings look very familiar and very typical. But as the eight participants share their stories of digital and Internet dependence, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary support-group meeting.

Melding naturalism with mysticism, Octet is utterly beguiling as it addresses an exceedingly real problem about dependence upon technology and electronic media. The musical's conceit is fairly straightforward as the characters constituting the octet describe their own personal addiction issues. Henry (Alex Gibson), for instance, is consumed by video games that contain brightly colored fruit and candy (e.g., Candy Crush). Jessica (Margo Seibert) is obsessed with "egosurfing," such as Googling herself, and Paula (Starr Busby), the group facilitator, describes how she and her husband have become so conjoined to their phones, there is not even a vestige of intimacy left in their marriage. Ed (Adam Bashian) and Karly (Kim Blanck) wrestle with the lure and consequences of a steady diet of Internet porn and online hookups.

Hovering above the proceedings, however, is a paranormal and perhaps darker force. The group seems to have been summoned by a preternatural being named Saul, the mention of whose name causes the lights to flicker. And why are there always eight people invited to attend the meeting? As Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez), the computer whiz, succinctly explains to the newest member Velma (Kuhoo Verma), the arrangement is associated with basic programming: "Eight bits in a byte."

Dave Malloy, who provided the music, lyrics, book, and vocal arrangements, explains in a program note that he was influenced by a host of novels, plays, podcasts, musical compositions, and other works. Part of the pleasure of watching the performance is noting the points of inspiration. One cannot help but notice elements of A Chorus Line, for example, as each character steps forward to tell her or his story (and Christopher Bowser's exquisite cinematic lighting seems to pay homage to Tharon Musser's seminal design).

The structure of the show is patterned on a Tarot spread or deal and consists of twelve (corresponding with a Zodiac spread) songs and musical vignettes. The motif of each of these relates to the reading of a particular card. The unsettling "Little God" number performed by Marvin (J.D. Mollison), as a case in point, presents the character's experience with religious and spiritual miracles materializing from his technology. The Tarot equivalent is The Hanged Man, which is associated with enduring extreme suffering in order to free from spiritual repression. In fact, the intermingling of everyday elements with the occult is what makes Octet so unique.

Director Annie Tippe makes terrific use of the space, and the eight-person ensemble is uniformly excellent. Since this is a show about getting in touch with one's humanness, it seems fitting that the voices are largely unaccompanied by instruments and technological enhancements (though they all wear mics). Occasionally, the performers use pitch pipes and percussively beat on plastic seat covers or their own bodies, and there is at least one moment that the voices are enhanced and distorted using Auto Tune (also known as "the Cher effect" after her hit song "Believe"). By and large, though, the singers' blended harmonies and vocal sound effects provide the stunning musical arrangements and underscoring (Or Matias is the music supervisor and music director).

Malloy's songs ingeniously merge classical-sounding choral hymns about monsters and forests that simultaneously and anachronistically reference technology and addiction. There are also rousing musical comedy songs and wistful ballads, particularly in the moving but disturbing duet about Internet sex, wryly titled "Solo." As performed by Blanck and Bashian (and backed by the remaining sextet), the song is just one of many memorable moments from the show.

The publicity for Octet mentions the surprising fact that this is Signature Theatre's first musical. Malloy is one of the company's current Resident Playwrights, and one can take heart that this will not be Signature's last. Audience members addicted to musical theatre can rejoice in knowing they have a new place to get their fix.

Through June 23
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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