Boy, oh boy does it sound promising on paper: the world premiere of a new musical from Michael John LaChiusa and playwright John Strand, directed by Eric Schaeffer and featuring some of Broadway’s hottest talents: Marc Kudisch! Judy Kuhn! Jason Danieley! It’s a story loosely based on Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch impressionist who gave us such aesthetic visions as Starry Night and the instantly-recognizable Sunflowers on Gold in the late 19th century.
He’s also the passionate painter who cut off his own ear, inspired by madness and, as the rumor goes, by the love of a beautiful prostitute in France. Such rich, fertile material for musical theater. Such a marketable story, such reputable writers, such a devoted muse in Schaeffer. Such opportunity.
Unfortunately, Sondheim already covered that ground back in 1984.
While Schaeffer and company fervently assert that they did not want to simply re-create another Sunday in the Park with George — they want to tell a story about how genius affects the lives around it — what they have successfully built in The Highest Yellow is a two-hour homage to one of Sondheim’s masterpieces, minus his memorable score and complex lyrics. They didn’t want the story to center around another impressionist painter (as George does with Seurat), so here the focus is intentionally kept away from van Gogh in a calculated but mistaken effort.
With Kudisch suiting up as the stoic patient admitted to a French hospital, Strand and LaChiusa hone in on van Gogh’s doctor, Felix Rey (Danieley). It’s 1888 and as Dr. Rey treats van Gogh for “melancholia nervosa ” — the antiquated term for clinical depression — he begins to feel inspiration through Vincent’s art and falls in love with Rachel (Kuhn), the prostitute already in love with the artist. Ultimately, Rey is consumed by his own fits of jealousy and van Gogh is sent to live in an asylum. Let the conspiracy theories begin.
As the first musical commissioned by Signature, it isn’t that Yellow lacks great ambition or theatricality. In fact, all of its performers, including Signature’s own ace Donna Migliaccio, are in the finest form. The problem with Yellow is that it lacks invention. LaChiusa, the composer of Hello Again, The Wild Party, and Marie Christine, still cranks out his signature staccato beats, but this time the melodies are utterly, regrettably forgettable.
And there are still strains of that “other ” musical lurking on, as made evident in the title song, which narrowly resembles Sondheim’s “Color and Light, ” and the evening’s entr’acte, titled here by LaChiusa as an “Intermezzo,” is “The Madam’s Song, ” which seems a gratuitous solo written exclusively for Migliaccio. Although it is delivered with polite composure and Migliaccio’s clear, athletic belt, it’s still the same brothel number we’ve all heard at least a dozen times before.
Yellow also lacks a sense of humor. When they finally do arrive, it’s in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. Schaeffer has staged a ridiculous scene where van Gogh sings the evening’s one showstopper from a cold bathtub. In the nude. The result is absurd, conjuring up wildly inappropriate behavior for such an otherwise tame musical.
Kudisch, who dramatizes van Gogh’s deep anguish with visible effect, is the real artist of Yellow, with his impressive stature and lovely command of musicianship. Accompanied by Jonathan Tunick’s soaring orchestrations under the direction of the area’s best maestro Jon Kalbfleisch, Kudisch steals every scene he enters, whether stretched out on a gurney or carrying a bright palette of colors. It’s too bad the Yellow notes on his palette prove so desperately unworthy.
The Studio Theatre opens its new multi-million dollar theater facility with a handsome production of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov, in a new translation by David Hare. You can still smell the sawdust settling in the energized space that is as much about presentation as it is about aesthetics. And under Joy Zinoman’s crafty direction, Ivanov, Chekhov’s raw, acerbic story of Russian gossipmongers and scoundrels, becomes a delirious, epic soap opera christening the unnamed stage.
Zinoman directs with a remarkably Shakespearean leisure, and the result is some of the best ensemble acting of the year. Her 18-member cast features impressive work from David Sabin, Nancy Robinette, Michael Tolaydo, Tom Story, and J. Fred Shiffman.
Shiffman is laugh-out-loud funny as Lebedev, the bumbling drunkard who cackles as he declares, “I literally cannot endure this! ” He is a joy, swaggering around slurring and swaying next to Sabin, who never loses his bright, nimble sense of comedy as the Count, Ivanov’s crotchety old uncle after Babakina’s money purse. And Brilane Bowman expertly reflects his bright spot as the wealthy widow seeking the title of Countess Shabyelski.
Phillip Goodwin is gracious in the title role, as the tormented husband to dying wife Anna, and Susan Wilder delivers a strong, moving performance as the Jewish spouse who gave up her family and name to marry him.
Russell Metheny’s dreamlike set includes floor-to-ceiling beams that serve as tangible obstacles for Chekhov’s lot. Gil Thompson’s Slavic music and effective sound design features humming crickets throughout one of Ivanov‘s four acts. The only flaw is the confusing medley of costumes from Helen Q. Huang, whose contemptuous designs include period dresses with lingerie worn externally for the women, while the men don contemporary sport coats, blue jeans, and khaki cargo pants. Whatever her distracting message is, it doesn’t connect.