Viewing the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of The Blue Flower, one can't help but think that it's hitting the boards a month late. In every way more apropos as a Fringe Festival offering, The Blue Flower is daring, ambitious, flawed, and in many ways anti-commercial. It's also brimming with the kind of feeling and inventiveness that musicals can never have enough of.
But bravo to NYMF and Spuk Theater for presenting this edgy musical, which was written by Jim and Ruth Bauer and has been directed by Will Pomerantz. Equal parts art history lesson and theatrical experiment, the piece alternately explodes in controlled, sensuous bursts and fizzles when it fails to reach the lofty goals it aims for. If roughly half the evening is immensely frustrating and in desperate need of tinkering, the show as a whole is highly provocative.
Almost more an art installation than a musical, The Blue Flower incorporates extensive video clips (directed and produced by the Bauers, and edited by Jim Bauer, Steve Quinlan, Matt Stone, and Jessica Stone) and live music from a 10-piece band (under Andrew Levine's musical direction) to tell its story of four friends in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Max, Franz, and Hannah (Todd Alan Johnson, Clayton Dean Smith, and Meghan McGeary) are artists, and Maria (Jean Arbeiter) is a scientist, and they spend much of the play coming together as friends or lovers (in various combinations) and falling apart until only one is left.
That's Max (based on real-life German artist Max Beckmann), who begins the show in Central Park in 1955, looking at a scrap book containing decades of reminiscences. Attempting to make sense of where he's come and who he's left behind, he succumbs to the urgings of the mysterious Fairytale Man (Jamie Laverdiere) and becomes lost in the collage of images and memories the book represents. In short order, he returns to the past to recall meeting Franz and then the women, losing Franz to the ravages of World War I, trying to pick up the pieces afterwards, and eventually moving to the United States to leave his previous life behind.
It's the interplay of all the elements utilized in the show that makes it more than the sum of its parts. Everything plays a vital role: The tight integration of the music with the film clips; the content of the film, which comments on and assists in telling the story, while paying homage to German silent film and the artistic movements the characters witness and participate in; the terrific cast, to a person displaying exactly the right temperament and talent for the piece; the high quality of Jim Bauer's music, which ranges from hauntingly gorgeous ballads to jagged, ear-piecing performance art pieces; the orchestra that contains (among other instruments) an accordion, a bassoon, and a cello to provide a sound that is both period and location appropriate and unlike what you'll hear in most other musicals; and the way that Pomerantz masterfully brings everything together so that, when the writing is at its strongest, no seams show.
But when the writing grows complacent or just downright lazy the show loses its grip on the excitement of its concept and becomes dull, repetitive, and almost unbearable. This is particularly true during an extended sequence in the second act when the central characters give themselves over to the throbbing social excesses of the Weimar Republic. The first act makes its points cleanly and concisely that to see the show take 20 minutes to demonstrate what could just as easily be done in five does a great deal to kill the momentum the show worked hard to generate.
If this is the most problematic aspect of the show as it now stands, at least it's easily fixable. That aside, minor tweaks and trims are all that's needed; the core of the show is solid, the concept impressively realized; the show is a compelling and moving statement about how our words and deeds impact our relationships with others and how important fostering those relationships can be. The show's loud, uncompromising nature won't appeal to everyone's tastes, the juxtaposition of its harsh edges with its soft interior is vital to conveying the show's underlying messages.
A program note explains that "the title comes from the symbol of the blue flower used initially by Novalis and other German romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries to signify the ongoing search for artistic perfection and which later came to symbolize the simultaneous end to and beginning of all things, reincarnation." It's hard to imagine this show having a more appropriate title, and hopefully this NYMF production will be the start of a long, healthy season for The Blue Flower.
New York Musical Theatre Festival