By Ian Rigg
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
― Herman Melville
Remember being a young theatre kid, with your whole life spread like a great sea before you, and everything seemed possible with enough imagination?
And then a white whale comes out of the sea and bites off your leg and sends you on an all-consuming course of vengeance that costs you your crew and everyone and everything you ever loved?
The Cuckoo Theatre Project sets sail for chortles and guffaws in their production of Moby Dick the Musical. Their latest voyage is a lampoon of the harpoon-toting American classic, a “whale of a tale” about an all-girl academy’s last-ditch effort to put on a show to save their school, helmed by an increasingly unhinged headmistress.
Director Donald Kolakowski, aided by Assistant Director Melissa Golden, wisely channels the halcyon days of a high school play, emulating the “Music Man phenomenon” (“THAT’S MY BARNEY! PLAY TO ME, SON!”), wherein gymnasium-mounted schlock arises into entertainment through earnesty.
It’s good clean fun and smartly masks any shortcomings of the material with simple choreography and clever tricks. A jaunty sea shanty ambience is set by a pre-show playlist of Flogging Molly tunes as theatregoers shuffle into Heartland’s intimate space. Then, Dick jokes abound as the irreverent romp gets underway, deploying amusing, inventive storybook ways to show events like sailing ships, storms and ghosts of the drowned. While the laugh-out-loud moments are spaced out, audiences will likely smile consistently the whole show.
Kolakowski’s crew helps him along–luckily, he is not hellbent on vengeance, and his team bolsters his vision rather than contemplate killing him at sea. Shannon Melick’s set and prop design perfectly embodies the ramshackle whimsy of the production and utilizes the Heartland’s intimate space well. Rocco Renda uses clever layering and a mix of school uniform and gym wear with nautical stripes to costume our characters, and a very well-grained sock to signify a wooden peg-leg. And Music Director Anthony Benz leans into a focus on the fun.
The cast has a real fun time onstage. Performing in drag to portray a woman playing a man, Peter Ruger eats the scenery in a pink coat as the hot mess of a Headmistress insistent on playing Ahab. Allison Ristaino commits to a character as she channels the Hermione Granger-esque brightest girl at her school who put together the show-within-a-show, narrating it as Ishmael. Alexandra Cross is delightfully maudlin as Esta and is brought back from her watery grave to good comedic effect.
A serious song and scene wherein first mate Starbuck contemplating killing Ahab in a mutiny for the sake of the crew may be a strange tonal shift for the ridiculous parody, but Kelsey Skomer sure kills it. Samie Jo Johnson’s facial expressions and effervescent presence light up the stage. Thomas Tong is clearly having a good time in his multiple roles as high school janitor, wily innkeeper, and cryptic one-armed man. And Hannah Mary Simpson shines as the security guard forced into the role of doomed cabin boy Pip.
A far cry from “thar, she blows,” Moby Dick the Musical is a fun little romp in the hands of the Cuckoos Theater Project. For anyone craving content off the beaten path, now’s the time to check it out at the Heartland Studio. For with the Heartland Café building next door being recently listed for sale on Craigslist, the future of the Rogers Park gem remains up in the air. The magic whimsy of Glenwood Avenue, secreted away into its colorful, narrow block beside a rail line, is a place meant for unique experiences. In the words of Melville himself: “It is not down on any map: true places never are.”
The Cuckoo’s Theater Project presents “Moby Dick the Musical” through December 1 at the Heartland Studio, 7016 N Glenwood Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.