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Moby Dick Nearly Captured at CMTF

Moby Dick Nearly Captured at CMTF

Moby Dick, the elusive white whale at the center of the classic Herman Melville novel, is not just the mad passion of Captain Ahab. He is also the fevered obsession of many a musical theater writing team, determined to capture his story in song. In my fourth report on new musicals at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival 2020, the writing team of Ed Bryan (book and lyrics) and William Berry (music) bring their new musical version of Moby Dick to the stage, and damn near harpoon him.  

Nate Hall and the cast of Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.         

This team has come all the way from Spokane, Washington with the biggest set of the festival (which I understand Mr. Bryan, a hearty man in his 60’s, built and drove here by himself), a cast of twenty plus, and a great Captain Ahab, Spokane singer/actor William Garry, whom you definitely should catch here while you can. Although this festival prides itself on being bare bones, all the effort that went into bringing this production here deserves your support alone. Fortunately, this is also a very good show, which I think will only get better after this run.   

Grant Brown in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer

“Call me Ishmael” says the narrator of Melville’s novel, who sets off to find adventure at sea by signing aboard the whaling ship, Pequod. He soon learns that he and his mates will be helping Captain Ahab hunt down the beast that once took his leg. What he doesn’t know is how great a price they all will pay. 

Chris Jowett, Aaron Johnson, Nicholas Pardo and Stefan Schallack, in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.           

According to Mr. Bryan, this show began as a sung through opera, which now wants to be a musical theater work. Opera is characterized by its use of recitative, in which dialogue is set to music without repeatable patterns of words and music which identify a passage to audiences as a distinct song.  By contrast, musicals which convey information through scenes of spoken dialogue generally rely on capturing and distilling peak emotional moments into a few key, repeated words, called the “hook” of the lyric, and melodic patterns which the audience can remember. Even in opera, nobody goes to Carmen to hear the recitative. They go for the arias they can hum. (Sorry, Mr. Sondheim!)

Peter Ruger, Nate Hall and Peyton Lynch in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.

So this show contains a lot of recitative which needs to be restructured into memorable, accessible songs if it wants to be another Big Musical. Right now, this operatic convention sits uneasily with the dialogue scenes and never quite captures the emotional moments for all its characters.  As the show goes on, and Ahab takes focus, they are more successful.  One song in particular, “What Price I Paid,” has the kind of personalization that the whole show needs more of. 

Hannah Silverman, William Garry and Adriana Schallack in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.  

A lot of the credit for the power of the production goes to William Garry’s haunting performance as Ahab. He is a fine operatic bass-baritone of the caliber one doesn’t often hear on our non-Equity musical stages. He also has just the right mature, haunted look for this weathered seaman.   

Kevin Blair, Sean Rhead, Theresa Egan, Nicholas Pardo, Hope Campbell, Chris Jowett, Aszkara Gilchrist and Peyton Lynch in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.   

William Berry’s music captures the rising and falling of the sea chanty, and extends the pulsing 6/8 rhythms through much of the show. Every so often, he would work in a musical motif with a lyric by Mr. Bryan which delivered that much desired hook, however subtle. Adam Guettle’s work similarly takes a hearing or two to pick those patterns out. But while my ears were dying for a simple melody, I had to admire how well crafted the music was on its own terms. Mr. Bryan’s lyrics also do a serviceable job in the sections of recitative, and get better when they are allowed to be more personal, as in Ishmael’s final moments onstage.   

Peter Ruger and Nate Hall in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.   

The production is blessed with a talented cast of Dickensian character actors under the tasteful direction of Jean Hardie. She is as effective in guiding the big, broad scenes on the docks and on the ship, as she is in subtle moments, such as when the first mate Starbuck (Kyle Kite) contemplates killing Ahab with his own gun.

Zander Galluppi, Aszkara Gilchrist, Hope Campbell, Theresa Egan and Nate Hall in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.

There are many to praise in this fine company. Among them are Nate Hall, who is a winning Ishmael. Peter Ruger’s subtle, deadpan Islander Queequeg is very endearing.  Ginny Waeant as Mary Starbuck is a glorious legit soprano whose singing made me want to hear more of her in the future. Hannah Silverman also sang quite nicely as Ahab’s wife, Annie. Kevin Blair as Doughboy, who is nearly eaten by sharks, and Zander Gallapi as Captain Gardiner, pleading for Ahab’s help in finding the ship which disappeared with his son aboard when Moby Dick dragged it away, were both moving. Among the character men, Aaron Johnson as Stubb, Peyton Linch as Peter Coffin/Peleg/Carpenter, and Chris Jowett as the Irish Bulkington in particular were wonderfully salty and working class. Imposing bass Sean Rhead was also delightfully creepy as Elija/Daggoo. Others in the company include Grant Brown, Hope Campbell, Melody DeRogatis, Theresa Egan, Aszkara Gilchrist, Courtney Miller, Nicholas Pardo, Charlie Scriven-Young, Adriana Schallack, and Stefan Schallack.

Melody DeRogatis, Zander Galluppi, Nate Hall, Aaron Johnson and Peter Rugerin Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.         

The fine band is led by Music Director/keyboardist Annie Flood.

Nate Hall and Sean Rhead in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.   

Big shows like this have a hard time getting done in local theaters unless they have a Broadway debut to brand them nationally, and they usually can’t get that Broadway  production without being seen first developmentally. Only a festival like CMTF is committed to helping shows like this bridge that developmental rock-and-a-hard-place. So congrats to the team for their good work, and thanks to CMTF for bringing it to us. 

Zander Galluppi and Hope Campbell in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.

Moby Dick has two more performances at the Edge Theater. They are February 18 at 8 p.m., and February 22 at 7:30 p.m.   For tickets, visit www.cmtf.org.  

Kyle Kite and Ginny Weant in Moby Dick – A Musical, part of the 6th annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. Photo by Sophia Sinsheimer.

Out of Town

Jeffery Lyle Segal is a multifaceted theater artist who has worn many professional hats. He started as a musical theater performer in his teens. He attended Stanford U., Northwestern University, and SUNY at Binghamton to study acting, directing and dramatic literature. He also wrote theater reviews for The Stanford Daily and was Arts Editor of WNUR Radio at Northwestern. After college, he is proud to have been the first full time Executive Director of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company. He left them to work as a theater actor and director. His special effects makeup skills got him into the movies, working on the seminal cult horror film, Re-Animator.He also did casting for several important Chicago projects, sometimes wearing both production hats, as he did on Chicago’s most famous independent movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. While living in Los Angeles, he joined the Academy for New Musical Theater, where he developed two book musicals as a composer, lyricist and librettist, Down to Earth Girl (formerly I Come for Love, NYMF 2008), and Scandalous Behavior! (York Developmental Reading Series 2010). He wrote, produced and performed his song “Forever Mine” as the end title theme of the horror film, Trapped! He also has written songs for his performances in cabaret over the years, and the time he spent pursuing country music in Nashville. Most recently he created a musical revue, Mating the Musical, for the Chicago Musical Theater Festival 2016. In NYC, he has attended the BMI musical theater writers’ workshop, and the Commercial Theater Institute 14 week producer program. He is currently creating a company to develop new musicals online. He still keeps up his makeup chops, working with top doctors in NYC and Chicago as one of the country’s most highly regarded permanent cosmetic artists (www.bestpermanentmakeup.com) and as a member of Chicago local IATSE 476. www.jefferylylesegal.com

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