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A CurtainUp Review
The Blue Flower
By Elyse Sommer
According to the authors' program notes, this ambitious project wasn't a case of musicalizing a particular story or, conversely, to create a story for music written by Jim Bauer. Instead, it was an attempt to combine their talents to "explore the narrative powers of sound and imagery" as a stage vehicle. Since the project's final form began with the music, let me begin my countdown of reasons why The Blue Flower is such an intellectually challenging, entertaining and genre defying musical.
As the show itself is an amalgam of fictionalized history with live and video staging, so the music manages to marry touches of twangy country western with the melancholy sound of Kurt Weill. Bauer doesn't write show tunes with catchy rhymed lyrics, but his music is definitely and hauntingly melodic and demands to be heard again. The 7-piece band, which includes an accordion and pedal steel guitar as well as cello, guitar and drums, infuses these seemingly incompatible styles with consistently pulsating energy and harmony. It's all very post-modern and of a piece with the whole Dada art movement (a sort of anti everything movement attempting to create something from the destruction World War I left in its wake) that flowered during the German Weimar period between the two European World Wars which the Bauers ended up choosing as the canvas for their libretto.
To chronicle this period the Bauers decided to create four fictional characters based on real persons from that period, and putting together their individual stories and their connection as friends and lovers like a collage by well-known Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters. The key figure in this quartet is Max Baumann. Patterned on the successful real-life German artist and emigre to the United States, Max Beckmann, brought to richly nuanced life by Marcus Neville. Neville's gestures accompanying his lectures in " Maxperanto," an invented language with a vaguely familiar ueber-East European flavor is hilarious and a bit reminiscent of the pseudo-German shtick Sid Caesar used do in the Show of Shows on TV.
Under Pomerantz's direction, the pieces of the collage are put together with great style. And while the story segues back and forth, from the starting point that finds Baumann leafing through a scrapbook of his work (and life) on a park bench in Central Park circa 1955, you're never confused as to where in the story of these ghostly figures you are. The filmed accompaniment to the live interchanges clarifies and enhances the story of Max's meeting and friendship with Franz (Robert Petkoff), another artist; Maria (Nancy Anderson) a Marie Curie like scientist who becomes Franz's lover; and Hannah (Megan McGeary), a dada-ish cabaret artist and his lover.
The filmed segments of the events before and during the first World War are a superbly funny-sad sum-up of the utter pointlessness and futility of a conflict that killed millions. As Nancy Anderson's Maria plaintively sings in the show's most poignant and memorable ballad, "Eiffel Tower," that war meant that for her and her friends "things will never the same."
To add to the edgy feel and unify the many pieces of the collage, there's a somewhat mysterious man in a bowler hat, identified in the cast list as the Fairy Tale Man and played with authorative panache by Jamie LaVerdiere. While the entire cast as well as the band deserve a hearty round of applause, Anderson with whose work I'm most familiar, is a vocal and acting standout who seems long overdue for a major role on Broadway.
Having heard Anderson her sing without amplification at Scott Siegel's "Unplugged" concerts at a much larger venue (the Town Hall), brings me to my one major problem with this production. It seems almost ludicrous to see someone with Anderson's pipes wearing a head mike in this living room sized space. If the band were positioned at the rear and above the audience, it wouldn't tend to be so close to the actors that some sort of amplification is necessary. At minimum, if little button mikes had been used, at least the miking wouldn't be so visually intrusive. Fortunately, even the head mikes don't take enough away from the pleasure of happening across something as unique as this show.
To sample some of the music, including the above mentioned "Eiffel Tower" check out www.theblueflower.org/WBBF/_video/BF.mov —but better still, get a ticket and hear Nancy Anderson sing it.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide