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'Octet' review: Musical cautionary tale about our obsession with technology

The cast of Dave Malloy's "Octet."

The cast of Dave Malloy's "Octet."  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Octet"

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., Manhattan
INFO From $35; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Elegant a cappella music, but a frightening look at our obsession with technology.

Those of us who attend theater frequently are surely sick of those ubiquitous, often annoying, messages to turn off cellphones. But the warning has more ominous overtones at "Octet," with the eight actors in Dave Malloy’s new chamber choir musical required to drop their phones in a basket on entering a meeting of their weekly support group.

And rightly so, since these people gathering in a dingy church basement are not alcoholics or overeaters or compulsive gamblers. They are addicted to technology — and they could be any of us. Malloy, best known for the sweeping "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," goes in an entirely different direction to start his five-year musical theater residency at Signature Theatre, with an elegant and often frightening a cappella musical exploring the perils of our collective obsession with devices.

"I’m an addict," says Jessica (Margo Seibert), the first to share in recognizable 12-step fashion, recalling in a song called "Refresh" her internet shaming in a "white woman gone crazy" video that went viral. Next is Henry (Alex Gibson), who details his extreme attachment to games like Candy Crush in a lively song that is sweet until it isn't. In the last verse he sings, "Deep down, I don't care if I die."

The pain is as real as at any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with attendees delving into everything from the hazards of online dating to tougher stuff like the lure of pornography and insidious darknet videos of beheadings and child rape. Directed by Annie Tippe, the show asks a lot of its impressive cast, with each of the eight singers performing almost nonstop the challenging beats and harmonies required of this kind of music, while establishing their troubled characters (interestingly based on Malloy's study of tarot cards). They're all terrific, but along with Seibert and Gibson, I'd single out Starr Busby's Paula, who leads the group with quiet authority while dealing with her own issues, and Kuhoo Verma as shy newcomer Velma. The music is innovative and varied, from the chorus of pitch pipes (everyone has one handy) to the beautifully arranged final hymn "The Field," so lovely it might find a life outside this show. 

The message derails near the end, when neuroscientist Marvin (J.D. Mollison), a new father, gets lost in trolling cyberspace during sleepless nights and thinks he's hearing the voice of God. But then, this is most definitely a cautionary tale and by the end, I felt like it might be a good idea to drop my own phone in that basket. And leave it.

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