Technology and spirituality make beautiful music together at Berkeley Rep

Genre-defying and award-winning musical “Octet” by three-time Tony Award nominee Dave Malloy makes its West Coast premiere in April.

The West Coast premiere of “Octet,” written and composed by Dave Malloy (right) and directed by Annie Tippe (left) opens at Berkeley Rep on April 20. Credit: Calvin Ngu

This story is brought to you by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

After welcoming back enthusiastic audiences to four shows with sold-out houses, Berkeley Rep continues its latest live season with “Octet,” an award-winning show that defies a straightforward musical definition. The latest off-Broadway hit by three-time Tony Award nominee Dave Malloy, the show’s West Coast premiere begins April 20.

Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble, “Octet” features eight internet-obsessed people who, while meeting in a church basement, share songs about their descents down the rabbit holes of viral videos, dating apps, social media, gaming, chat rooms and even the darker corners of the net. But “Octet” isn’t a luddite indictment of our smartphones — it invites us to balance the upsides and downsides of virtual life and to be more present with each other.

“‘Octet’ feels so relevant in this particular moment,” Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer said. After two years of social isolation — in which technology has been a lifeline — “‘Octet’ gives us an opportunity to lean into the very human need to come together in shared spaces,” she said, while also “recognizing the complicated and necessary role that technology plays in our lives.”

The Tarot is a major thematic and structural element in “Octet.” Credit: Berkeley Rep

Malloy, who wrote and composed the show, said that while it was born from his own obsession with “the fact that there was this whole other world being created by technology,” ultimately the show is “about a group of people trying to find meaning and goodness in their lives.”

While technology figures predominantly into “Octet,” a spiritual, arcane element also threads its way through the piece. The Tarot is a major thematic and structural element, and Malloy also draws on diverse influences from “Black Mirror” and World of Warcraft to Rumi and Richard Dawkins. 

Audience members will find exhilarating revelations and witty Easter eggs throughout this show, which has been lauded as imaginative, smart and unique by New York critics. 

The number of genres Malloy works with is so expansive that the show defies a musical definition, though it’s branded as a “chamber choir musical” for its cast of eight singers. There is no orchestra or onstage band. The cast itself is the orchestra, turning in expert vocal performances as both soloists and accompanying ensemble members. “The voices in the ensemble take on anxieties and dreams of the character singing the solo,” said Director Annie Tippe.

With impressive technical prowess, the ensemble’s contrapuntal voices act as accentuation and percussion, and create everything from traditional choral music to the pings of electronic notifications. “The performers have to have an incredibly high level of musicianship and the stamina to be present with each other,” Tippe said. The majority of the original New York cast performs in Berkeley Rep’s presentation.

Tippe, who also won a Lucille Lortel Award for directing “Octet,” hopes that the characters aren’t the only ones finding connections during the show. “I find listening to and experiencing ‘Octet’ really joyful and hopefully soul-opening for people in need of connection and community,” she said. “That’s my hope for people who see it, that they can laugh and cry and be comfortable with strangers.”

“Octet” runs April 20 through May 29 at Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre at 2025 Addison Street. Run time is one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Patrons must wear masks and show proof of vaccination. For ticket information contact the box office at 510-647-2949 Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. or visit https://www.berkeleyrep.org/shows/octet/.

This story was written and paid for by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, whose mission is to create ambitious theatre that entertains and challenges its audiences, provokes civic engagement, and inspires people to experience the world in new and surprising ways.