Encounter OCTET’s Encounter Group

Oh, this looks as if it’s going to be fun.

When you enter The Linney Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center, you’ll see it’s been turned into a church basement where bingo tables have been set up. Maybe we’ll all get to play a few games and take home a few prizes.

No. Before the show begins, the tables are removed and replaced by eight folding chairs. The prizes that theatergoers who attend OCTET will get instead are worthy music and performances.

In a time when musical theater has become less ambitious, Signature’s artistic director Paige Davis has found a property unlike you’ve ever seen as her theater’s first-ever musical offering.

As if writing an entire score of a musical isn’t enough, Dave Malloy has created a story, a libretto and has even done his own musical arrangements. After the show stop by the merch stand, for he’ll probably be there selling refrigerator magnets.

Churches are musically famous for their spirituals; here, Malloy manages to create music that seems spiritual without sounding religious. These are secular songs that are accompanied by virtually no instrumentation.

A pitch pipe is blown a bunch of times and a tambourine is used albeit not in the usual shimmy-shaking religious sense. It’s instead placed flat on an actor’s knee where he pounds its top to make drum sounds.

And yet, this a capella musical soars when one of the performer sings and seven castmates provide background comments and harmony. The octet makes exquisitely beautiful music despite the fact that each of its members is a troubled soul.

When one member of this group therapy session stands and “testifies,” that the others sing along suggests that they understand and empathize the tortured person’s plight.

Paula (the excellent Starr Busby) at first seems to be the group’s level-headed leader. Alas, she too is an addict who’s no better off than the rest. Be it sex, drugs or something else entirely, each of the eight has admitted to a “deep emptiness” and has come to church to meet his or her demons. One, some, all or none may emerge victorious.

Annie Tippe, who’s impeccably staged the show, has cast it just as wonderfully. Alex Gibson is enthralling as Henry, the group’s most nervous member. When he sings, he lifts one leg backwards, puts it down, lifts the other, and repeats.

What makes him more antsy than the others is that his new boyfriend doesn’t know about his problem: “All the games I like have candy in them.” Perhaps he’s speaking about more than just a Hershey or a Zagnut, for he does sing that “I don’t care if I die.”

Marvin (the impressive J.D. Mollison) is a new father whom at first glance seems to be blue-collar. That’s our prejudice at work from his dress and less-than-lofty speech. Actually, he’s quite the intellectual as we’ll soon hear. “I’m intolerant of intelligent design,” he says – at least until he gets a phone call from God, who (in a nice change of pace) asks for man’s help.

Karly (the wistful Kim Blanck) has romantic problems. “We have sucked the sacrament out of sex,” she complains before becoming less brittle and uttering a cri de coeur et âme: “I could be so good at love.”

Velma (the introspective Kuhoo Verma) is a woman of few words. That’s understandable given that she’s the new member of the group. Once she lets loose, she becomes as quick-tongued as Amy in COMPANY. (Malloy, in a program insert, acknowledges that the Sondheim-Furth classic is one of his many inspirations.)

So Velma relates the substantial amount that’s been on her mind. This story seems to be the one on which Malloy most wants us to concentrate, for Velma sings it without a peep of accompaniment from anyone else.

(Truth to tell, the other songs, with seven voices against one, run the risk of having their principal singers drowned out. This solo is a welcome respite.)

Such a show lends itself to free association, which is probably harder to write than we might assume. There are plenty of smile-inducing observations. (“I have problems with self-service checkout”) and charming rhymes (“She makes the same noise as me; she likes the same toys as me.”)

How many songs have we heard in our lives that repeat the same line – often more than once? It’s often the sign of a lazy songwriter who can’t be bothered to find a rhyme. Malloy has the words “obsessive compulsive disorder” sung over and over. Here, it’s a clever move, for the repetition makes an actual comment on the disease.

Malloy hasn’t allowed for much conflict among the characters. Surely such a group has at least a couple of hotheaded individuals who can’t stand each other. Instead, Malloy is content to let each character have his or her say. Luckily, every musical soliloquy is so arresting that the absence of discord isn’t much missed.

A seemingly shapeless show such as this always runs the risk of letting us infer that the scene we’re seeing at the 90-minute intermissionless mark will be the last. No, there are ten more minutes before OCTET concludes. Luckily, they are powerful ones.

Dave Malloy isn’t in the circle of pop songwriters who comes to Broadway, does a show and then goes home to count the money they made from it. He’s proving now in his second high-profile musical that he’s a true man of the theater. Better still, as impressive as his NATASHA, PIERRE ETC. was, here he’s been able to create a completely different sound. That he wrote both is almost impossible to believe.

Lord knows how many more unique shows Malloy has in him. Here’s hoping we’re all around for each of them.