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The Blue Flower

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sebastian Arcelus and Marc Kudisch.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

If you had told me seven years ago, when I first encountered The Blue Flower in the inaugural season of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, that it would ever be playing at a mainstream Manhattan nonprofit, I probably would have laughed at you. Scratch that: definitely laughed at you. After all, this is a show that fuses country music with Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Dada, the rampant excesses of the Weimar Republic, and a completely invented language—none of which alone remotely guarantees success, and all of which together would seem to actively repel it. Yet Jim and Ruth Bauer's indisputable masterpiece has somehow burst open at Second Stage, and though it's receiving a somewhat less-than-masterful rendition, it automatically qualifies as one of the season's most electrifying and unmissable musicals.

Come to think of it, scratch that, too. Accurate though the term "musical" may be—there is an eight-piece band (conducted with guts and brio by Dominick Amendum), there is choreography (by Chase Brock, easily erasing memories of his limp, MTV-drunk dances for Spider-Man), there are characters who sing about things happening within and around them—it captures only a fraction of what The Blue Flower is. "Art installation" comes closer, as the show is utterly dependent on a collection of films (also by the Bauers) constantly projected on one of two upstage screens that cheekily outline the universe, the players in it, and what they all endure over the course of six turbulent decades. This is where much, but not all, of the vital Verfremdungseffekt is centered, and the distribution device for many of the threads of narrative that will constitute the "plot."

Another footnote is required here. The story exists primarily as a collage of images and impressions culled from the lives of four people as they witness a series of startling historical shifts that begins on the day of the 1889 death of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and ends nearly six decades later in New York. Max, Franz, and Hannah, are all artists—the first two with paper and paint, the third with her body and voice—and Maria is a scientist. Through revolutions, assassinations, roiling social change, and even two Great Wars, they attempt to maintain their friendships and feelings for each other, which are often as complex and wrenching to them as the portraits, performances, and discoveries that define their professional endeavors.

Teal Wicks
Photo by Ari Mintz.

None of this is told linearly, but none of it is confusing—so precise is the writing, with many of the characters narrating events themselves, and so well honed is Will Pomerantz's staging that getting lost is an impossibility. Regardless of whether the focus is leaping around in time, scenes are being rendered entirely in that (heartbreakingly lyrical) nonsense language Maxperanto (its namesake fell into it after a run-in with the Nazis in 1937), or whether they're composed of avant-garde diegetic numbers in which lines between stage and audience blur beyond recognition, you remain rooted in place in a fantastical, fairy taleĀ–like world that always seems real enough to have actually unfolded exactly this way.

For that, credit the Bauers' remarkable writing, so colorful, so rich in its characterizations, so cohesive in the interplay between the music, lyrics, dialogue, and the very atmosphere that surrounds it all. You get everything you can think of, and much that no one has conceived of before. "Wild Horse Dancing" is Max and Franz's galloping, intoxicating tribute to artistic inspiration; Hannah presides over two pounding Dada riffs ("Puke" and "Pro Patria Mori") that highlight the age's performing underground; and Maria, in the wake of a crushing personal loss, sings "Eiffel Tower," one of the most gorgeous theatre songs of the last decade (and perhaps further back still), and steeped in memory and emotion in a way that theatrical ballads are always supposed to be, yet rarely manage these days.

It all cohabits so consummately as a piece of writing that I would love to report that it's just as impeccable onstage. Unfortunately, I can't do that this time around. At both NYMF and the Prospect Theater Company, where The Blue Flower was performed in 2008, the production elements jelled in a way they don't quite manage here. (The films, which to my eye have remained essentially unchanged since 2004, are exempt from this.) Beowulf Boritt's set is distressingly drab, a clumsy-looking assemblage of wooden platforms and staircases; paired with Donald Holder's almost comically bright lighting, there's no way to plunge into the show's dark realities enough to become immersed in them. They make things look more real than hyper-real—a crucial mistake.

More damaging still is the casting. Neither Marc Kudisch, as Max, nor Sebastian Arcelus, as Franz, does anything wrong, but they never do everything absolutely right. Kudisch is spectacular in the Maxperanto scenes, so soulful and committed that you don't need to comprehend the words in order to understand every nuance, but when speaking in English he never achieves equivalent depth; Max is, in many ways, a victim of history, and Kudisch does not communicate that. Arcelus communicates almost nothing, coming across as completely shallow and bereft of spirit, even though Franz undergoes the quickest and most drastic changes of anyone. Worse, they kindle no spark of friendship together, and if you don't believe their relationship everything else that occurs is mighty difficult to swallow.

Meghan McGeary
Photo by Ari Mintz.

Teal Wicks has a lovely manner onstage and wields a bewitching voice (her "Eiffel Tower" is a dream), but lacks the vulnerability necessary to make Maria the gripping, tragic figure she can be. Graham Rowat is stunningly miscast as the quasi-mythical figure (called Mr. O) who guides Max on a journey through the pained recesses of his mind: He should be an impish, even devilish, personification of the entropy each of the quartet is battling against, but Rowat is so straitlaced, clean-cut, and dapper looking (costume designer Ann Hould-Ward has outfitted him in a smart, utterly non-threatening suit and vest, her sole misstep) that he evinces no authority whatsoever.

In the previous incarnations of the show, that character (called then Fairy-Tale Man) was Hannah's otherworldly counterpart, explaining (or at least tacitly justifying) the "why" behind everything she did. Meghan McGeary remains unparalleled as Hannah, driving through her role with the smoky, energetic intensity of Lotte Lenya in her heyday, but no longer fits as snugly into the action as do the other three. Her turns must be the centerpieces of the show and of the era itself, chronicling the myriad ways and reasons it spun out of control, and the forces that anchor us in an existence that's now all but lost to memory and is destined to soon be lost to imagination as well. That they're not is a devastating shame.

The saving grace is that The Blue Flower itself is so exquisitely crafted and realized, it survives all these problems even when it doesn't thrive. But I remain convinced that the show can and will again. Its title is even an aptly chosen tribute to this notion, referencing the symbol for Novalis and other 18th- and 19th-century German romantic poets of the never-ending quest for artistic perfection, and which later signified the beginning and end of everything, eternal reincarnation the ultimate result. What the Bauers have wrought is capable of outlasting the first, and what will hopefully be the last, production incapable of showing this moving and magnificent work to its best possible advantage.

The Blue Flower
Through November 27
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: