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A CurtainUp LA Review
In the small provincial village of Arles, France, artists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin briefly shared a house and a model, innkeeper's wife Marie Ginoux, painted by Van Gogh as "The Arlesienne" and by Gauguin in "The Night Café at Arles". It's a promising subject for the stage and composers John Allee and Gary Matanky focus their musical on the effect the artists have on the repressed and yearning Marie, who loves art and longs to see more of the world.
It's a shrewd choice and an excellent production. However, the heart of a musical is the music and Allee's score, though graceful and lilting, has much of a sameness. Sometimes it catches the period in the dance rhythms employed in the polkas of the time. The lyrics by Allee and Matanky are poetic, though the book, credited to both, is too verbose. The art of Van Gogh and Gauguin is so primitive and powerful, that it's a pity to see it diluted by pretty Muzak that doesn't reflect their vision.
Director Michael Michetti gamely overcomes this handicap with a forceful and vivid production.
The play begins when Joseph-Michel Ginoux finally pays off the mortgage on his café. His wife Marie believes an added cause for celebration will be fulfilling their long-held dream of travel but her husband claims there is still too much work to do consolidating their position. A downcast Marie is ripe for the art and exoticism offered by her new tenant, eccentric artist Vincent Van Gogh. Her husband is less enthusiastic, as are Joseph and Augustine Roulin, the postman and his wife, who, nonetheless, also succumb to Van Gogh's quest for models. The arrival of painter Paul Gauguin, a former stock broker and perennial lady's man, brings a simmering sense of beckoning horizons to Marie's narrow life. Marie and Paul's mutual fascination becomes the disruptive core of the play and the colony of artists Paul and Vincent dream of never materializes. Vincent amputates his ear for reasons never fully clarified in this play or in fact. A resulting scuffle with Paul results in the latter's leaving Arles. Marie rejects his plea to join him and finds the bluebird of happiness right in her own backyard. It's a sensible decision and I'm sure Joseph-Michel looks reassuring after this artistic turmoil but the romantic embrace with which they end the play leaves a Hallmark Hall of Fame taste.
The artists are sensitively portrayed by Bjorn Johnson, who emits a force field of nervous energy as Van Gogh, and Steven Memel as a dynamic and charismatic Gauguin. Beautiful Fiama Fricano projects the bearing of a bourgeois matron and the girlishness of a yearning romantic. Michael DeVries' superb voice and authoritative presence as her husband Joseph-Michel make him a credible foil for his wife and the artists. Excellent musical accompaniment is provided by musical director/pianist David Holladay, Ira Glansbeek on cello and John Harvey on percussion. Katherine Ferwerda's set design incorporates the Provencal colors Van Gogh repeated so lovingly in his work.
Allee and Matanky received an ASCAP/Sammy Cahn Award for excellence in lyric writing and a previous play was a finalist for the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Richard Rodgers Award. Poet's Garden is another step in a promising career.
Book & Lyrics by John Allee & Gary Matanky
Music by John Allee
Directed by Michael Michetti
Cast: Fiama Fricano (Marie), Bjorn Johnson (Van Gogh), Steven Memel (Gauguin), Michael DeVries (Joseph-Michel), Brad Blaisdell (Joseph Roulin), Dina Bennett (Augustine Roulin).
Set Design by Katherine Ferwerda
Lighting by Steven Young
Costume Design by Doug Spesert
Musical Direction/Piano by David Holladay; Cello, Ira Glansbeek; Percussion, John Harvey.
Running Time: 3 hours, with intermission.
The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue., Los Angeles, (310) 289-2999
From April 19-June 3, 2001
Official Opening: April 21.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock April 19