CAMBRIDGE — Many of the metaphors in “Moby-Dick,’’ Herman Melville’s 1851 leviathan of a novel, are drawn from nature, scripture, the cosmos, or the sea. But not all. Indeed, Melville resorts early in the book to the language of theater.
Before launching into his tale, Ishmael, the narrator, muses that he “cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces . . .’’
Well, Ishmael, old chap, you now have a part in a musical. And it’s an ambitiously conceived and superbly executed musical, too, if occasionally self-indulgent.
Heaven knows what Melville — an onstage bust of whom silently observes the proceedings during the world premiere of “Moby-Dick’’ at the American Repertory Theater — would make of this creation by the team of Dave Malloy (music, lyrics, and book) and Rachel Chavkin (who directs and helped develop the musical). But the author would be hard pressed to gainsay the fact that Malloy and Chavkin have devised an arrestingly expressive theatrical language of their own.
The duo captures that elusive balance between the epic and the intimate, but then again they are no strangers to the challenge of adapting monumental 19th-century novels into human-scale musicals that have plenty of atmospheric texture, having previously collaborated on “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812,’’ based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace’’ and presented at the ART in 2015.
To a greater degree than that more visually sumptuous work, though, the ART’s bravura “Moby-Dick’’ is at pains to directly connect its story and characters to the 21st century, particularly in its “Hamilton’’-like use of diverse casting to restore some of American history’s missing pages.
Malloy’s script stipulates that “it is essential that Ahab be the only white cast member.’’ That cast member is Tom Nelis, in a white, Old Testament beard and tricorn hat, and Nelis does an able, seething job as Ahab. But there’s a reason this retelling of “Moby-Dick’’ is subtitled “A Musical Reckoning.’’ The reckoning is with the legacy created by invidious racial and cultural assumptions — not just Melville’s, but ours.
So rather than centering the musical primarily on the reverberations within Ahab’s psyche as he obsesses over finding and killing the mighty whale, "Moby-Dick’' foregrounds crew members — played by people of color — whose own humanity ultimately counts for nothing as they are propelled toward a doom of Ahab’s making. It has the effect of underscoring the destructive impact of power imbalances built on heedless white privilege.
The 13-member cast, which scrambles expectations of race, ethnicity, and gender, is strong across the board. Manik Choksi has to traverse a wide and tricky emotional spectrum as Ishmael while building a bond with the audience, and Choksi does it all exceedingly well. Starr Busby movingly portrays chief mate Starbuck, a figure of sanity and conscience who tries desperately to dissuade Ahab from his deadly folly.
Dawn L. Troupe excels in multiple roles that include a priest and a ship’s captain from Nantucket who fruitlessly beseeches Ahab’s help in finding the young son dragged away by Moby-Dick on a whaleboat. Other standout performances include Andrew Cristi as the harpooner Queequeg, the facially-tattooed friend to Ishmael; Eric Berryman as Fedallah, another harpooner; Kalyn West as Stubb; J.D. Mollison as Daggoo; Matt Kizer as Tashtego; and Anna Ishida as Flask.
The story of “Moby Dick’’ is framed as a tale told by a soul-sick young man of the present day. Played by Choksi, he confides to the audience that he has had a rough couple of years and has suffered an unspecified personal loss. "I don’t really feel safe in this country right now,’’ he says. But then he notes that Melville’s novel functions for him as an escape — echoing what Ishmael says in the novel about the sea’s powers of restoration — and adds that “the great democracy of the whale ship’’ serves as a reminder of “what a beautiful sprawling mess this country can be.’’
With this key difference: “In my head, I get to cast the Pequod as the America I want to see,’’ he says. Then he speaks those fateful words — “Call me Ishmael’’ — and we’re off on a theatrical journey that clocks in at a Melvillean 3½ hours (including an intermission).
That sounds daunting, but this “Moby-Dick’’ actually moves quite swiftly, with the notable exception of a protracted sequence after intermission about the travails of Pip (Morgan Siobhan Green), Ahab’s cabin boy. Though it exerts a haunting power, the sequence goes on at inordinate length.
In general, Malloy has largely been judicious in terms of what he has left out (Ishmael’s lengthy sojourn in New Bedford is thankfully omitted) and what he has inferred (a slow dance between Ishmael and Queequeg brings to the surface a bit of subtext). When it comes to the white whale itself, “Moby-Dick’’ wisely lets the audience’s imagination do the work.
Malloy gets to have it both ways, drawing heavily upon Melville’s text for his song lyrics while also tweaking the author for his legendary verbosity. Introducing an amusing parade of whale puppets, Ishmael announces: “Let us get into the famous long and boring whaling chapters.’’ But Malloy also demonstrates a sense of humor when it comes to his own enterprise. A forceful Berryman, as Fedallah, breaks character and removes his costume while mocking Malloy and Chavkin for “all this ‘aggressively diverse’ casting in an effort to, what, guys, win some prizes? ‘Outstanding Wokeness From a White Writer and Director in a Musical’?’’
Scenic designer Mimi Lien ought to win some kind of prize. Lien, who worked on the ART’s “Natasha, Pierre,’’ has again created a remarkable, all-encompassing set that transports you into another world. The audience is grouped in the reconfigured Loeb on three sides of Lien’s gracefully curved, wooden-ribbed simulation of the Pequod, complete with a crow’s nest.
But the set is also suggestive of another, darker journey, implying that just possibly, in the words of "Moby-Dick’s'' opening song, “We are all in the belly of the whale/ Hiding in the dark from the sins that tell our tale.’’
Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Based on “Moby-Dick,’’ by Herman Melville. Developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin. Choreography, Chanel DaSilva. Music direction, Or Matias. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 12. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org