Fascinating 19th century tale of whaling men out of New Bedford in historic South Street Seaport setting needs more variety in its many ballads to make this a perfect new musical.
The six members of the Lobbyists make up the cast along with Raymond Sicam III (on cello) who perform all of the characters as well as play all the instruments. The Melville Gallery has been decorated by set designer Jason Sherwood as a 19th century inn that seems to encircle the audience. Samantha Shoffner’s props (suggestive of both an inn and a schooner) include netting, ropes, glass jars, baskets, paintings and a ship’s wheel. After the band plays an introduction, Caldi (played by Tony Vo) offers to tell us the story of Gravesight, “the greatest harpooner who ever lived.”
When Percy Scoresby is born, his mother dies in childbirth. His sailor father Phillip (Alex Grubbs) tells him his mother is the sea which he believes without a single hesitation. Around the inn in New Bedford where they live, the child Percy is at first played by a lifelike puppet designed by James Ortiz, with movement created by Nick Lehane. When the whales go further out from New Bedford waters deeper into the Atlantic, Phillip leaves on a sea voyage, promising to take Percy on his next ship, but never returns. In order to find his father, the young man Percy (now played by Tommy Crawford) eventually signs on a ship as a scrubber of decks.
Jumping ship in St. Augustine, Florida, he meets and falls in love with the charismatic and memorable owner of a seamen’s inn called The Cicada. When they marry and she still won’t tell him her name, he nicknames her “SeaWife.” Soon after, they are separated and the haunted older man now played by Will Turner and nicknamed Gravesight (for his ability to sleep with his eyes open) goes whaling again and reveals his incredible talent as a harpooner as he seeks to take out his emotions on Leviathan. When he betrays his Muse’s gift to him, he turns into an obsessed and troubled man.
The cast are excellent as actors, singers and musicians. Tommy Crawford makes a sympathetically callow and inexperienced Percy. Will Turner is properly haunted and troubled as the older version. The vivacious and dynamic Eloïse Eonnet (the only woman in the troupe) is a memorable heroine in the title role. Alex Grubbs is hearty and vigorous as Percy’s father, the Pirate Gibbs and the alcoholic Captain Bertram. Tony Vo alternates between being amusing and sinister as the narrator Caldi. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman is vital as the sailor Bartleby (shades of Melville) and the Harpooner Stubbs.
While storytelling is always absorbing, the evening seems long for several reasons. As the excellent musical numbers do not forward the story, at times they seem unnecessary to the plot. The authentic sounding folk ballads, Irish jigs and bluegrass melodies are mainly accompanied by stringed instruments (guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and cello) so that the orchestrations tend to sound very similar even with the occasional additions of an accordion and percussion. Nevertheless, many of the songs are winners in themselves including the anthems, “Johnny Cake Hill” and “Glory,” which become exuberant company numbers. Director Liz Carlson, also credited with developing the material, gets outstanding performances from her cast. However, despite the fact that the set spills all around the theater, she has staged the play almost as though it were on a proscenium stage. This may be the result of the ten pillars in the Melville Gallery which might make viewing difficult for many members of the audience.
One member of the production team must be credited with superb work which helps facilitate the evening. Jake DeGroot’s lighting design always focuses attention on the action, while at times creating the needed moods with the sudden revelation of blue, green or red lights. The wall behind the set (created by Travis Schlaht) is revealed to be a giant picture of the sea and is turned various colors at dramatic moments in the plot. Loren Shaw’s costumes offer the authentic look of 19th century seamen both on land and sea.
SeaWife is an unusual environmental musical that is true to its whaling period. With a high-powered cast who double as musicians and actors, this is an involving show which runs the gamut of emotions. While it still needs some shaping by its creators, Seth Moore and The Lobbyists, it is a theatrical evening not easily forgotten.
Sea Wife (through July 26, 2015)
Naked Angels in partnership with South Street Seaport Museum
The Melville Gallery, South Street Seaport Museum, 213 Water Street, north of Fulton Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.seawife.org or http://www.nakedangels.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission
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