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|A CurtainUp Review
La Vie en Bleu
By Kathryn Osenlund
A program insert provides an overview of events and some of the characters to be encountered, which is a good idea because anyone seeing the show without quite a bit of prior knowledge could easily get lost. There are cameos of various people whose links to Picasso only Picasso cognoscenti might know: Apollinaire, Breton and Satie are just three examples.
The stage is enveloped in an atmospheric mist which evokes the past, for this is a memory play seen from the distance of Picasso's old age, and told to his grandson. Bill Van Horn as the Old Man gives a rich and full performance. He and Pablito, the boy, remain at stage left throughout, framing the action.
Pascal Stive's intricate, sophisticated and somewhat oblique score interweaves with the story and stage movement. It is fascinating to hear different periods of art represented by music, and the sound of the Cubism period is particularly inspired. The lyrics, evidently some new and some translated from the original French, are clearly articulated by the ensemble.
The book by director Bruce Lumpkin and Bill Van Horn, is more Picasso extravaganza than character study. The production succeeds in a show-biz way-- telling its story, eliciting sympathy for its characters, tapping audience toes, and filling heads with music.
The engaging Jeffrey Coon plays the lead role of Picasso. Well known and respected in Philadelphia, Coon has done fabulous work in Rags (also directed by Bruce Lumpkin), The Baker's Wife, and Baby Case, to name a few. The Picasso role is challenging and exhausing, with its frenetic exuberance and its despair -- and Coon is up to it.
Picasso's Spanish pal, Carlos Casegamus, whose tragic suicide ushered in the Blue Period, is played by the remarkable Ben Dibble. His work in The Baker's Wifeand Bat Boy was memorable, and his role as Hauptman in Baby Case, legendary. The scenes of close friendship between Pablo and Carlos are more touching than the scenes that pair Picasso with his women.
The opening number,"Le Commencement," a compelling and vibrant Spanish dance, sounds and looks great. Another catchy number with fine choreography, "Dear Minister," features showgirls in black with top hats. The vocal director, dance arranger and choreographer deserve credit. The audience loved the moving "Someone for Me," sung by talented Denise Whelan as the Moulin Rouge showgirl who precipitated Carlo's suicide. This song is later cleverly reprised under different circumstances. Among the talented women actors Rebecca Robbins, blessed with a melodious voice, shines as Picasso's wife, Olga Koklova, and Michael Brian Dunn's saucy Cocteau provides comic relief.
Notable among the imaginative costumes are those of the fantastic animal and circus performers of the Rose period. The least successful are white drapes on Picasso's lovers. These should have been dramatic in their simplicity, but the women's clutching and fidgeting with the fabric to avoid revealing too much proved distracting. To wear such garb calls for a certain insouciance.
The set is evocative and effective as it changes in mood. Much is accomplished by Jack Jacob's fine lighting of John Farrell's large stage drapings. The stage, however, is too small to comfortably accommodate the set pieces, decoration, dancers and actors without crowding. The choreography of "Le Cirque Rose," a case in point, begs for more room.
Perhaps because of the play's episodic structure, a pair of dancers in a kind of "tango of life" provides continuity through the drastically changing scenes. On the downside, the dancers, though absolutely wonderful, are overused and their artistry becomes old too soon.
Some musical numbers are less effective than others. The lyrics and rendition of "Eva, Ma Jolie" and the lyrics of "Guernica" make these candidates for the weaker songs category. The people of Guernica sing that they will be soldiers and they will die, but the massacre in their town was so terrible precisely because they were not soldiers.
The story lags a bit toward the end and words come across as lame, straining to provide answers to Pablito's questions and at the same time segue into the final scene. But the musical picks up again and finishes strong when Mark Indelicato, the very affecting child who plays Pablito, sings a short piece and "Life in Blue" is reprised.
La Vie En Bleu exposes Picasso's immense ego, but within an overwhelmingly sympathetic treatment. His legendary mistreatment of his women gets a comparatively light touch, and ultimately seems to be dismissed as a consequence of love. Overall, Picasso comes off well and his life in art is celebrated. This version of the show has undergone a complex and unusual process of adaptation and development. It still may require some attention and shaping, but it is a special musical. Someone in the crowd spilling out of the Walnut Street Theater at the end of the evening was heard to say, "It's a little over the top." Yes. Like Picasso.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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