The premise for Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye’s 1990 musical sounds like a parody of bad musicals—like Elephant!, the intentionally bad musical adaptation of The Elephant Man featured in the 1989 movie The Tall Guy: take Herman Melville’s much-praised, less often read masterpiece about a monomaniacal sea captain bent on killing the albino whale that bit off his leg—and musicalize it. The great British producer Cameron Mackintosh (Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera) bankrolled the original production at Oxford’s Old Firehouse Theatre in 1990. It opened in the United States in 1993, fittingly enough in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Longden and Kaye frame Melville’s tale with the story of a nearly bankrupt Catholic school, Saint Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies, and its last hope for solvency, a self-produced musical version of the aforementioned classic with all of the characters played by students (except Ahab, who is played by the crazed headmistress). You can see already the possibilities—either for great comedy or disaster.
The Cuckoo’s Theatre Project’s current revival falls somewhere in between. The performers in this production, directed by Donald Kolakowski, have a charming energy, and some in the cast, notably Tina-Kim Nguyen, perfectly hit the balance of seriousness and silliness needed to make this self-consciously campy comedy work. But much of the humor in the show is crushed by actors who telegraph punch lines, singers who can’t do justice to Longden and Kaye’s sometimes inspired score, and the inevitable messiness of cramming a nine-member ensemble into the Heartland Studio’s tiny storefront space. v