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The Blue Flower

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Meghan McGeary and Marcus Neville
Photo by Tyler Kongslie.

When future historians try to pinpoint the exact moment in the 2007-2008 season that adults rose to rescue musical theatre from the children who have been holding it hostage, one can only assume they'll decide upon The Blue Flower.

This show by Jim and Ruth Bauer that's being produced by the Prospect Theater Company is no rock musical, though it threatens to blow out the walls of the tiny West End Theatre it's housed in. You won't find a trace of camp within its impossibly brisk 140-minute running time, though it's also one of the funniest new musicals New York has seen in several seasons. And it's not based on a famous movie or a catalog of pre-sold pop songs, even if most of what you see and hear feels as familiar as the enveloping embrace of an old friend.

No, The Blue Flower is, as much as it can be classified as any one thing, one of the decade's most eclectically electric explorations of theatre's potential to unite all the arts within a single heartbeat. This modern Dadaistic masterpiece fuses together the Weimar Republic, the United States, the two World Wars they had in common and the musical styles they didn't, and the unpredictable yet irresistible pulse of a video-art installation to create an show that behaves, sounds, and feels like no other.

So don't be surprised if a guitar's harsh country twang melts into a direct melodic quotation from another famous Weimar musical. Or if a Dada performance artist and her ghoulish backup singers force you into a sing-along with some of the most carefully constructed nonsense syllables you've ever heard. Or if you're brought to tears by the sudden dissolution of a relationship or a life that, mere minutes earlier, seemed to be fixtures no less permanent than the Alps.

The only certainty is that nothing is definite. Unexpected connections between the Eiffel Tower and figures as apparently disparate as Prince Rudolph of Austria, Adolf Hitler, and contemporary Renaissance man Max Baumann (played here by Marcus Neville) can be as simple as their lives all ending or beginning in 1889, or as complex as the threads of time that keep linking the four together throughout the first few decades of the 20th century.

Robert Petkoff and Nancy Anderson
Photo by Tyler Kongslie.

Wandering through a world that eventually becomes as much about exploding hand grenades as unbridled creativity, Max discovers a matrix of friends and lovers in kindred artistic spirits Franz (Robert Petkoff) and Hannah (Meghan McGeary) and in scientist Maria (Nancy Anderson). The ebb and flow of their lives, against the dual backdrops of World War I and its aftermath and the devilish story-spinning of the book-wielding Fairy Tale Man (Jamie LaVerdiere), creates the canvas on which the panorama of disaffected human experience is splashed as if by Jackson Pollock.

But the superb and crassly understated (or perhaps understatedly crass) direction and choreography of Will Pomerantz, mated with the Bauers' meticulously detailed construction of everything from the script and the score to the breathless videography, prevent you from ever getting tangled in a web of partially abandoned notions. They all ensure that nothing is extraneous, that there's no comedy for the sake of laughs, no controlled implosions for the sake of emotional affectation. Even sets, costumes, and lights refuse to exist for the sake of pageantry: Bert Esenherz's scrapbook backdrop, Sidney Shannon's demi-makeshift costumes, and Cory Pattak's nightclub-esque lighting only accentuate the collage-like nature of the piecemeal world these characters are trying to survive.

The performances are just as free of excess, crafted with such extraordinary delicacy that they seem to have been born from the floor of the stage rather than merely stepped onto it from the wings. Neville resolves Max's flurry of contradictions into a man of impeccable strength, making him every bit the quixotic yet enigmatic survivor he must be to keep from collapsing like those around him. Petkoff's playful yet adult nature beautifully bespeak the heart that makes it too easy for him to love and be loved in return. Anderson is a gorgeous, porcelain doll of a Maria, drawing equal parts determination and shattered anger from each of the tragedies that befall her (coalescing in song in the haunting "Eiffel Tower," the show's only moment of true serenity). Darker and richer still are McGeary and LaVerdiere, who best embody the upright-meets-low-down era. Her cold exterior, forged within the fires of resilience, and his ominous grace as history's emcee are the defining forces of the propulsive era.

They're also holdovers from The Blue Flower's 2004 run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where the show first attracted wider public notice. That production (also under Pomerantz's direction) was rough and unfocused, a brilliant beginning greatly in need of burnishing and clarifying. In the years since NYMF, the show might have lost a fraction of its steel-barbed edge, but is in every way more affecting, human, and gripping a theatrical experience.

It's not, however, an easier one. The Blue Flower may be neater, but it's still messy. It may be smoother, but it's still razor-sharp. It may be more accessible, but it's still the most challenging musical in town. It exists on its terms, whether you love it or hate it, and demands you do the same, making it a tight-fitting tribute to exactly the search for artistic perfection that the bloom of the title symbolizes. That makes it the most exciting - and most necessary - kind of theatre possible.

The Blue Flower
Through March 2
West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, second floor
Tickets online: OvationTix

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