Seven years since his breakout musical "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," a reworking of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" that eventually reached Broadway, Dave Malloy returns with an impressive new chamber musical called "Octet" whose influences are as varied as his subject matter is contemporary.
Indeed, the Playbill for the show -- which opened Sunday at Off Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Center -- includes a small-print bibliography of influences that includes the poet Rumi, Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Philip Glass, Tarot cards, the TV series "Black Mirror" and "World of Warcraft."
The audience is gathered in a church meeting room, designed to exacting detail by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, where the cast of eight arrives to clear away the bingo-card-strewn card tables and gather in a circle of folding chairs for an apparently weekly meeting of addicts. And here's where the first surprise comes: Like "Black Mirror" creator Charlie Brooker, Malloy is interested in the addictions of the internet age, and how our reliance on digital technology has often tipped over into an unhealthy dependence.
We meet a woman who has earned viral infamy for a meltdown caught on YouTube (Margo Seibert), a young man who can't seem to lick his "Candy Crush" habit (Alex Gibson) and a pair whose frequent use of online dating apps seems to lead them no closer to genuine human connections (Kim Blanck and Adam Bashian).
And while each of the group members delivers her own story in song, like "A Chorus Line" reimagined as a group therapy session, the session features three "hymns" that they perform together. These are lush, gorgeous art songs performed in note-perfect eight-part harmony without musical accompaniment. (Credit Malloy for the vocal arrangements as well.)
This is a deliberately secular spin on a choral tradition that's more typically heard in a religious setting, but the approach helps elevate the seriousness with which Malloy approaches his themes. "Addiction, obsession / Insomnia, depression / And the fear that I've wasted too much of my self / On rapid and vapid click-clicks."
Those with a low tolerance for a cappella may grow weary of the solo numbers, where the full cast backs up the main singer with vocal flourishes (though with more restraint than one encounters in the instrument-imitating a cappella found in collegiate singing groups or the "Pitch Perfect" film series).
However, there is a certain sameness that creeps into the individual songs, and a tendency to start with the specifics of a character's experience only to pivot, again and again, to how the internet is hurting all of us -- turning us, as one chorus goes, into "fools and marionettes homogenized on a digital gazette." Repetition doesn't deepen the point, alas, though Malloy the lyricist does get bonus points for rhyming melatonin and stolen.
Still, "Octet" is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exercise, directed with theatrical flourish by Annie Tippe and performed with consummate craft and musicianship by the eight-member cast. And this sui generis show deserves to be seen in a small setting like the Signature's intimate three-sided space -- a Broadway transfer is both unlikely and ill-advised.
While "Octet" never quite achieves the catharsis of a therapeutic breakthrough, it can bring chills in a more old-fashioned mode of human self-improvement: resolving discord through soul-jolting vocal harmony.