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Paulanne Simmons
Glenda Frank

Paulanne Simmons

A Great Novel Receives a Great Musical Adaptation

"And God Created Great Whales"
Directed by David Schweizer
45 Bleecker Street
Opened Feb. 12, 2012
Please note unique performance schedule: Tues Feb 7 - Mon. Feb 13; Wed. Feb 15 - Sun. Feb 19; Tues Feb 21 to Sun. Feb 26; Tues. Feb 28 to Sun. March 4; Tues Mar. 6- Mon. Mar. 12; Wed Mar. 14-Sun. Mar. 18; Tues. Mar. 20- Sun. Mar. 25. Evening performances begin at 8pm, Sunday matinee performances at 3pm. Please visit www.cultureproject.org for exact dates and times of performance.
Tickets: $55 except during previews (Feb 7-Feb11) when tickets are $35. www.cultureproject.org or 866-811-4111
Closes March 25, 2012.
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 1, 2012

Moby Dick, published in 1851, is considered not only Herman Melville's greatest novel but the Great American Novel. Although the story is a simple seafaring tale about the adventures of a sailor named Ishmael on a whaling ship, the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab, as the very names of the characters imply, the novel can also regarded as an allegory of good and evil, God and man, and the individual and society. Some people are convinced Herman Melville was homosexual and Moby Dick is the Great Gay Novel.

In 1997, The Foundry Theatre commissioned Rinde Eckert to create a musical adaptation of Moby Dick. What he came up with is an extraordinary work that incorporates music, song, dance and dialogue. "And God Created Great Whales" received its world premiere at Dance Theatre Workshop in June 2000 and earned an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination. The show was remounted in September of the same year at Culture Project and has been performed various times since in both New York City and across the country.

Now, Culture Project, in association with Elisha Wiesel, is again presenting "And God Created Great Whales." The show, directed by David Schweizer, features Eckert as a composer who is attempting to create a work based on Moby Dick, despite the fact that he is slowly losing his mind, and Nora Cole as his muse. The multi-talented Eckert appears onstage wearing a rumpled suit. Around his neck he has hung an old fashioned tape recorder that plays pre-recorded messages instructing him on how to proceed with his project. Cole, every bit worthy of her grand task, wears flowing red and a corset most probably made of whalebone.

Although they often interact, it is clear that the composer and his muse live in two different worlds. The composer is struggling to keep his grip on reality. His muse has emerged from the deepest recesses of his mind and memory. She's the embodiment of his ideal woman, an opera singer he met many years ago.

As the composer writes his music, his muse reminds him of the meaning and symbolism of the original novel, and he tries to translate her words and movements into music. The result is at times lovely, at times ironic and often quite evocative.

John Torres and Caleb Wartenbaker's set, with its piano covered with notes, its ropes representing the rigging of a ship and its many suspended tape recorders, effectively conjures the themes of the show. Their lighting design heightens the show's emotional power.

It's not surprising that the composer identifies so strongly with the great novel Just as the sailors are eventually drowned in the sea, he too is drowning in the darkness of his foundering his mind. Composing his great opera is the composer's attempt to cling to life and consciousness. It is his quest. His agony. His great white whale.

For lovers of Moby Dick and music, "And God Created Great Whales" is a must. For everyone else the show is very strongly recommended.


Glenda Frank

Call me Ishmael

"And God Created Great Whales."
Created, composed, written by Rinde Eckert.
Directed by David Schweizer.
Performed by Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole at Culture Project,
45 Bleecker St., NYC. Feb. 7 - March 25, 2012.

"And God Created Great Whales" is a musical work directed by David Schweizer now playing at the Culture Project. As I read the press invitation, I thought: what a great title! Not only is it majestic and biblical, but it’s also the title of Alan Hovhannes’ masterful symphony that incorporates whale sounds. I was intrigued by the premise of the work: a composer who is losing his memory and will eventually forget even to breathe is writing an opera about "Moby Dick," that powerful American saga about friendship and obsession. I read some of the rave reviews from the 2000 New York production and the recent Los Angeles staging. I was excited.

"And God Created Great Whales" is not a show for everyone. Maybe it was just too much expectation, but I found the 80 minutes of this work by Rinde Eckert hours too long. Nothing holds together, from the premise to the execution. Eckert, who wrote the music, lyrics and script, plays the protagonist. Each morning the composer cannot remember who he is so he plays an old-style tape recorder, which he wears around his neck, to jog his memory. Unfortunately the devise is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s "Krapp’s Last Tape," a slow, heartbreak exploration of young love and regretful age. Eckert’s touch is to add a slew of color-coded tape recorders, colors, each with a specific purpose: to record his composition, his musings, his insights. Quite honestly, I don’t think I could keep them straight in my mind as I move through my day’s activities. How can I believe he can?

He is joined on stage by a muse, an imaginary helper inspired by a diva the amnesiac once adored. She had hired him as her piano tuner, so we understand his career trajectory. (We never get to know him; he remains generic.) At first she is a welcome device, his latent memory advising him to turn on the tape recorder or refocusing him when his actions become obsessively repetitive. But soon she takes on a life of her own, demanding he insert a cameo for her in the opera. He protests. She storms and rails. What’s going on? I am increasingly confused about the premise of this piece. If she is a creation of his fading mind, why is she so articulate while he can barely utter a sentence? And why has she her own agenda? I wonder if I am being too literal. Perhaps I should just go with the flow.

But the flow itself is lackluster. The opera follows Melville’s novel almost scene by scene, usually with little drama. Some of the music has a postmodern magnificent and complexity, at times reminiscent of Stravinsky’s "Firebird." Some of it just pounds away in an attempt to be dramatic. To underline the obvious, the back screen turns red. Eckert has a singular voice, a beautiful tenor -- and in one number, a countertenor. His singing is the highlight of the evening.

He is joined in duets by Nora Cole, who has a more limited range. She sings a few solos and adds dance movement. He is a giant hulk of a man and she is self-conscious and mannered. They make an odd couple. The glory of downtown theatre is its edge, its willingness to experiment. Sometimes in pieces like "Three Pianos," a 2010 musical work about Franz Schubert at New York Theatre Workshop, the experiment is transcendent, unforgettable. More often it’s a mixed blessing. Despite the curiously mismatched costumes (Clint Ramos) and intriguing set (John Torres and Caleb Wertenbaker) and despite its production history, "And God Created Great Whales" feels more like amateur theatre, an early draft of something that might become interesting.


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