Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Blue Flower: Offbeat But Compelling

Meghan McGeary as Hannah in The Blue Flower

If you are the kind of musical theater fan who craves a linear storyline, songs that propel the action, and richly developed characters you can relate to, well…let’s just say in all probability you will not warm easily to The Blue Flower, now on view at the Second Stage Theatre.

Nevertheless, this is a show that deserves to be seen, and it is unlikely it will ever receive a better production than the top-notch one it is now getting.  So if you are at all curious, you should go.  

In turns inventive, compelling, confusing, and absurd, The Blue Flower draws on imagery and ideas that channel La Belle Époque, the anti-art Dada movement, the sexual libertinism of the Weimer Republic, and the theatrical music style associated with Brecht and Weill.  

The Blue Flower is the creation of composer Jim Bauer and artist Ruth Bauer, a husband and wife team whose work is to musical theater as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s creations were to environmental art.  (Remember "The Gates" in Central Park?)  They have taken a song cycle (his) and built a theatrical experience around it, with a dreamy sort of plot that follows the lives of four characters who are vaguely suggestive of artists Max Beckmann and Franz Marc, the Dadaist Hannah Höch, and scientist Marie Curie.  A tale of love, loss, and regret unfolds before, during, and after World War I. 

Instead of allowing the characters to reveal themselves through dialog, the Bauers have chosen to incorporate a great deal of narrative and film, and it is quite possible to grow impatient with this technique that distances the audience from the characters.  Yet this approach is frequently fascinating; the projected clips often have the appearance of old newsreels, and the show incorporates at least one authentic Dada film, Hans Richter’s "Ghosts Before Breakfast."  (I recognized it from a Dada exhibit I attended at the Museum of Modern Art.)

As for the songs, they are many pleasures to be found, with truly lovely ballads, upbeat numbers, and music that ranges from Weill-like to country-western in sound.  More importantly, they are performed by a terrific cast that includes Marc Kudisch, Sebastian Arcelus, Meghan McGeary, and Teal Wicks in the lead roles.

This is not an easy show to perform; Marc Kudisch as Max, for example, has to deliver a rather large chunk of dialog in a made-up language his character calls “Maxperanto,” and the work’s non-linear style has got to keep the performers on their toes.  Yet they are all first-rate throughout, with nary a misstep among them. 

The singing is accompanied by an onstage band of splendid musicians, under the direction of Dominick Amendum, who perform on piano, cello, drums, guitars, bass, bassoon, and accordion. All of the proceedings are smartly directed by Will Pomerantz, with choreography by Chase Brock.

Admittedly, The Blue Flower will not appeal to everyone.  It is an art piece, and an eccentric one at that.  Yet once I got past my initial confusion over the unexpected approach, I found it to be compelling and rewarding.  You just might too.

If you would like to see Hans Richter’s Dada film, "Ghosts Before Breakfast," check it out at

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