Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut, New York, Connecticut Critics Circle
New York, NY - It could be argued that everyone has an addiction. It can be as common as drugs or alcohol; it could be more culturally acceptable, like television or video games. Even science and religion can become a person’s addiction.
In Dave Malloy’s new musical, “Octet,” recently extended to June 30 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, he addresses one of the more recent growing addictions, personal technology.
Set in the basement of a multi-purpose room in an interfaith religious hall brilliantly detailed by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, eight people come for a tech addicts anonymous meeting. They put their phones in a basket and sit in a circle and begin to sing a hymn (“Hymn: The Forest”).
It’s not a bit ironic that Malloy chooses to address this cultural passion by writing the show a cappella. Technology being juxtaposed with the stripping away of everything musically aside from the actors’ voices is a well constructed contrast.
A cappella music isn’t something terribly common in musical theater. Broadway only had its first full a cappella musical a couple years ago with “In Transit.” “Octet,” though, isn’t being labeled an a cappella musical but a chamber choir musical. This is apropos with the religious nature of the setting and Malloy’s compositions is more reminiscent of choral compositions than what people may equate a cappella today with things like barbershop quartets or pop a cappella groups like Pentatonix or Straight No Chaser.
The narrative is fairly simple. The eight characters come in, seven of them have been there before, the eighth, Velma (Kuhoo Verma), is new.
As with support groups, they all identify by their first name only and state that they’re addicts before they speak. Each character gets their song in the spotlight that discusses their personal problems with their respective addiction, but “Octet” never really connects the characters with each other.
Though they share similarities and there is a cultish quality about the seven regular members – there’s even an invisible ninth character named Saul who isn’t present – there is no indication that there are relationships between the attendees. Nor is there any relationship building going on the show. I get that these groups are supposed to have a level anonymity, but there doesn’t feel to be any lasting connection between them outside of their meetings. This detracts from any relationship development in the characters.
Instead, we are only given musical sketches of each addiction. These can be enjoyable, especially when the audience makes a connection with the character and their specific issue.
The best is Starr Busby as Paula, who sings about her and her husband’s addiction of using their personal electronic devices in bed instead of giving each other attention (“Glow”). Busby gives the most heartfelt and sincere performance with the number. There is a sense of remorse and grief felt in the deterioration of her marriage.
A couple of the songs do feel a little long. “Candy,” a song about addiction to games like Candy Crush, and “Actually,” about an obsession for conspiracy websites both grow tedious and could have been more than fulfilling if it had been trimmed by about a minute each.
The “Little God” number is the only story that feels out of place from the narrative of the show. Marvin (J.D. Mollison) is a scientist that trolls creationism chat boards who has an encounter with someone who could be God. The narrative veers so far from the premise of the musical that it feels shoehorned.
“Octet” is a light, delightful show. Malloy does create compelling characters with unique personalities and bizarre, yet endearing quirks. The cast has phenomenal voices, especially Adam Bashian’s rattling bass and Margot Seibert’s powerful belt.
“Octet,” though, aside a little from Velma, has zero evolution of the characters. When the show resolves, there is a bit of a lesson to be learned, but when none of the characters get the same opportunity as the audience does to learn that lesson, it detaches us from the relationship we have with them.
Theater: The Pershing Square Signature Center
Location: 480 W. 42nd St., New York
Production: Music, Lyrics, Book & Vocal Arrangements by Dave Malloy; Directed by Annie Tippe; Scenic Design by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta; Costume Design by Brenda Abbandandolo; Lighting Design by Christopher Bowser; Sound Design by Hidenori Nakajo
Show times: Evening: Tuesday through Friday 7:30 p.m., Saturday 8 p.m. Matinee: Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: Through June 9: all tickets $35. Beginning June 11: all tickets $99. Available online at www.signaturetheatre.org, by phone at 212-244-7529, or at the box office