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A CurtainUp Review
Van Gogh's Ear

Oh Theo, I want to say something comforting in the pictures. . .as music is comforting.— van Gogh in a letter to his brother as he's embarked on one of his most prolific periods.
Van Gogh's Ear
The Ensemble for the Musical Century Founded by pianist, writer and musicologist Eva Wolf has been presenting a fascinating array of chamber concerts plus staged narratives since 2001. I saw None But the Lonely Heart, the strange story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA, and found it an intriguingly different genre, perhaps best called a Chamber-ama

Naturally I was pleased to hear that EMC was going to have a season as a tenant at the Pershing Square Signature Center, with Van Gogh's Ear the first of three of these Chamber-amas on offer. Van Gogh besides being one of the art world's greatest painters also had a fascinating personal history and is thus a fitting subject for the Ensemble's approach to enlivening their concerts with visually rich narrative featuring actors, singers and musicians on stage.

With the Signature Center's largest venue free, Ms. Wolf and her team has a chance to give Van Gogh's Ear a much larger, more elaborate staging than the Tchaikovsky piece I saw in Lenox.

Set and costume designer Henry Wang has certainly filled the theater's generous playing area with a set to accommodate a the painter's dramatic story, as well as the musicians— that's six first class musicians (2 pianists, 2 violinists and 1 viola players), plus two singers with opera credentials and Carter Hudson, a seasoned stage and TV actor, to play the painter. Add to this that Eve Wolf has used van Gogh's own words from his voluminous correspondence with his beloved younger brother Theo for her script and that I've always had a special fondness for epistolary books and plays, and it's easy to see why I anticipated this to be even more all-around compelling than the Tchaikovsky piece.

While the two hours do indeed offer many pleasures in terms of script, staging and music, the epistolary set-up didn't work all that well here since it's one sided, nor did the casting decisions or Donald T. Sanders' direction for Vincent during the musical interludes. More about this later, and on to the good news now.

The musical pieces fittingly represent four French composers of van Gogh's time: Cesar Franck (1822-1890), Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), and Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The instrumental selections (the French version of German lieder) as sung by mezzo soprano Renee Tatum and tenor Chad Johnson may not appeal to fans of the Great American Musical Songbook. However, for classical chamber music and lieder fans the playing and singing will be a not to be missed treat.

Also on the good news front, Eve Wolf has managed to evoke a vivid picture of van Gogh's years in the French country side, the painful bouts of mental illness that caused his self-mutilation and ultimate suicide. And David Bengali's stunning, constantly changing projections on three free standing upstage panels, the back wall, on van Gogh's easel and in a large picture frame turn the stage into a veritable museum visit. Even before Begali's wizardry for projecting the dazzling sunsets and other striking pictures created by van Gogh during that period of his life. Vanessa James's set and costumes feature replicas of some of those pictures with the scenery and costumes — for example Vincent's on stage room and Vincent's first appearance wearing a big hat for one of his outdoors painting sessions are clearly inspired by several famous paintings.

To go back to the problematic aspects of this production. . .

The stage is set up with each side furnished to accommodate the correspondents, and a place at the center for them to enter, exit and actually meet. However, since only Vincent's letters were preserved and available, we never hear from Theo. Well, yes we do. You see, Chad Johnson has been double cast to act Theo's role and also occasionally sing. Except for one scene in the second act when he and his wife (Renee Tatum) are acting out their roles as new parents — albeit, speaking about this event is left to Carter Hudson's Vincent. Ms. Tatum, not only double tasks as actor and singer, but her first appearance is as Vincent's lover. Proficient as both Tatum and Johnson are as vocalists, they're not able to make these portrayals interesting.

Difficult as this double tasking is for Tatum and Johnson, Carter Hudson doesn't exactly have a cakewalk as Vincent. His is a straight acting part, but he has the task of giving voice to all those words culled from his character's letters. But while Mr. Sanders opted to make his two non-singing actors spend most of their time sitting and listening to the music (and these were stellar actors unaccustomed to talking so little), he's directed Hudson to do everything possible to ratchet up van Gogh's crazy side. Instead of letting him sit at his easel or on the bed during the musical interludes, Sanders has him busily move about — awkwardly applying paint to a skimpy little notepad and doing other things that distract from the music. I haven't seen Hudson in the hit FX Snowfall series, but I found him charming and very much liked his performance in Lucy Prebble's The Effect last year. Maybe if he'd been allowed to sit back and listen more, like the Tchaikovsy piece's actors, we could all just enjoy the lovely instrumental performances.

There is one other non-speaking, non-singing cast member who briefly appears as an attendant at the asylum to which the painter is confined after the ear mutilation. This is again a bit of unnecessary busyness during a musical interlude.

My quibbles notwithstanding, I look forward to the next in line Ensemble production: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with music by Lizt, Schubert and Bach.

A final note: Be sure to save your program and read musicologist James Melo long and informative article "The Sound of Color.

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Van Gogh's Ear
Written by Eve Wolf
Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Cast: Carter Hudson(Vincent van Gogh, Chad Johnson (Theo van Gogh), Renee Tatum (Gabriell Berlatier/Johanna van Gogh- Bonger) Kevin Spirtas (Attendant/Dr. Peyron)
Scenic and costume by Vanessa James
Lighting design by Beverly Emmons
Projection and lighting design by David Bengali
Live music by Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), Renana Gutman (piano).
Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Running Time: 2 hours, including 1 intermission
Ensemble for the Romantic Century at The Pershing Square Signature Center's Irene Diamond Stage 480 West 42nd Street
From 8/10/17; opening 8/17/17; closing 9/10/17. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/15 press preview
Note: This is NOT a Signature production.

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