Thursday, December 09, 2010

The A.R.T. Presents "The Blue Flower" - A Noble and Musically Gorgeous Experiment

The Boston and Cambridge theater crowd was out in force last night at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater for the official opening of "The Blue Flower." Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, continues to experiment boldly with new works and re-imagined works. "The Blue Flower" is the latest offering from the laboratory of her collaborative mind. The results are are mixed blessing, but I applaud her courage and her commitment to promote and encourage new artists and to reach out to new theater audiences.

"The Blue Flower" first germinated in the fertile minds of a Beverly couple, Jim and Ruth Bauer. Along the way, the seedling was watered, fertilized and pruned by a growing team of collaborators who have helped it to try to come to full bloom in its present incarnation at the A.R.T. Iconic Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz brought the nascent show to the attention of Diane Paulus, and the germ of the idea for the current production was planted. Schwartz, who signed on as a producer for the show, was in the audience last night, looking very much the proud papa. Schwartz knows a thing or two about musical theater, having written Godspell, Pippin, Children of Eden, Wicked, and other shows and film scores. I caught up with him during intermission and had the following exchange:

Al Chase: "I am sure that people must thrust things in front of you all the time and ask you to look at their work. What was it about this show that grabbed your attention and made you want to become involved?"

Schwartz: "The music! I fell in love with the music the very first time I heard it in an ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop that I am involved with in New York."

Al Chase: "The Author's Notes describe the music as 'Kurt Weill going tête à tête with Hank Williams."

Schwartz: "We also refer to it as 'Sturm n' Twang'!

Al Chase: "How much influence have you had in shaping the show beyond the musical skeleton around which it has been formed?"

Schwartz: "Very little, actually. The Director, Will Pomerantz, has worked closely with Jim and Ruth to shape the show, adding elements along the way as the show has grown. I have added some minor suggestions for moving pieces around to make them more clear in telling the story."

Ah, yes - the music. The music is gorgeous. It is beautifully written, flawlessly performed and spectacularly orchestrated and played by a band of musicians who are the unsung heroes of this show. They are so integral to the presentation of this musical that they deserve to be mentioned individually. This is a motley crew of instruments not usually found in a theater pit - or in this case, on stage as part of the set. The Weimarband consists of: Mark Rubinstein who conducts from the piano, Peter Bufano accordion, Patrick Carmichael, drums and percussion, Steve Latt guitar, Douglas Quint, bassoon, Mike Rivard bass, Emleigh Vandiver cello and John Widgren pedal steel guitar. The overall sound of the show is arrestingly beautiful and fits the Weimar Republic - Dadaist tone of the show itself.

Discerning audience members became aware as soon as they opened their programs that this would not be just another routine evening at the theater. The opening page that lists the creative team is repeated on the next page, translated into "Maxperanto" - the personal language spoken by the protagonist, expressionist artist, Max Bauer. Max is played by Daniel Jenkins, whose singing voice is mesmerizing in its beauty and ability to tell a story through song. (In reading through the Playbill, I realized that I had seen and heard him a number of years ago when he played Huck Finn in Broadway's "Big River.")

The rest of the cast is equally strong, with Meghan McGeary as Hannah, Tom Nelis is the Fairytale Man (Narrator), Lucas Kavner as Franz, Teal Wicks as Maria and Connor Christiansen and Paul Shafer playing all the rest of the supporting roles.

I liked this show, and will probably return to see it again. But my approbation is conditional. I love the music and the attempt to weave around the music a credible tale. It felt last night as if the work of perfecting the story is still unfinished. This is an ambitious show - with lots of "high concept" layered upon the accessible music. There are complex and sometimes arcane themes that involve commentary on the nature of language and communication, the horrors of war, the ennui of the Belle Epoch giving way to the excesses of the Weimar Republic, the evanescent nature of relationships, the interplay between images - painted and motion picture - and the things they represent. There is also a recurring motif involving horses, the significance of which I did not totally comprehend. In other words, as a fairly sentient member of the audience, I felt I had to work a bit too hard to make sense of it all.

Because of the artistic choices made to represent the ethos of the Weimar era, there is a deliberate attempt to strip the show of traditional chronological narrative. The result was an attendant stripping away of the normal emotional cues that allow an audience to know how they should be feeling and identifying with the characters. I found myself unmoved when death raised its ugly head - and I wished that I could have felt moved. The buzz among audience members - during intermission and after the show - was very positive and enthusiastic, yet the audience had a hard time knowing when to clap for song that should have evoked wild applause. I take this phenomenon as evidence of the lack of emotional cues from the flow of the narrative.

One of the main characters is a fictionalized Marie Curie. One image that lingers in my mind is Madame Curie standing downstage right in her laboratory, pouring elements from beaker to test tube and back again. That image shall stand for me as a metaphor for this show in its current form. The show feels like a chemistry experiment that needs a little more refinement - another round of distillation - to remove the lingering impurities. All the right elements are there, they just need to have some more changes made in the valances so they bind together more cohesively. I am hopeful that the experiment will continue to be refined. I applaud all of the creative team and the performers. I encourage you to come and visit this living laboratory and this bud of a musical while it continues to struggle to come to full flower.


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