Early in the Signature Theater’s new musical “The Highest Yellow,” an earnest character sings, “You need the dark to make the light lighter; you need the scream to make the quiet hurt.” The lyric clearly aims to prepare the audience for and perhaps justify the gloomy scenes to follow in this sober treatise about the emotional turmoil of artist Vincent van Gogh. Gloomy, indeed: We are talking darker than dark here, in stark contrast to its sunny title.
It was five years ago that Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer conceived the idea of a show about van Gogh and the obscure French physician who treated his mental illness. The first musical commissioned by Signature, “Highest Yellow” reps the biggest undertaking yet for the tiny theater and the first collaboration between local playwright John Strand and composer Michael John LaChiusa (“First Lady Suite”).
It is a bold and difficult assignment to embrace such topics as obsession, genius and madness within a period context, set to a score that’s more chamber opera than musical. To convincingly present the material, Schaeffer has even cast Broadway actors Jason Danieley, Marc Kudisch and Judy Kuhn alongside Signature regulars.
To Schaeffer, who is known as a keen interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, another challenge was his stated concern that the production not be tagged “Sunday in the Park With Vincent.” Alas, he should be so lucky. The musical sadly falls short of Sondheim’s standards in numerous departments. (It might more appropriately be compared to Sondheim’s surreal “Passion,” a work it somewhat resembles in style and eclipses in angst.)
Strand’s book views the obsessed patient most clearly through the eyes of his physician, Dr. Felix Rey (Danieley), who marvels at the artist’s genius and wonders whether the illness is its inspiration. Cure the malady and the beautiful art will dry up, he worries.
But just like the suffering patients restricted to its dreary hospital setting, the book is confined to a narrow and often tedious inspection of the mental and physical state of the patient who has lopped off his ear. The second act focuses on the relationship’s impact on Rey, which includes an obsession with a prostitute, drawing obvious parallels for the audience to chew on.
While the writing is at times crisp, it circles its themes repetitively and presents them with an irritating pretentiousness. The principal characters are almost maniacally self-absorbed and without exception unlikable, certainly limiting empathy with their plights. There is not an ounce of humility to be seen.
LaChiusa’s score is an interesting mix that soars occasionally, but leaves precious few lasting melodies. His compositions are surely demanding to performers who often must tackle them solo.
But it’s his lyrics that carry the weight of the show as performers sing about madness, the capacity to love and the difficult life of an artist whose heart is “too big.” It is in song that a determined van Gogh (Kudisch) reveals the explosion of senses as he prepares to paint, and disappears from life within “the highest yellow.”
Schaeffer’s direction stresses the humorlessness in action that includes heaping doses of blood and suffering, one gratuitous nude scene and a mountain of self-righteousness.
Among the performances, Danieley, Kudisch and Kuhn (as the prostitute) cope stoically with their taxing roles and vocal assignments. Harry Winter is effective as the head doctor whose unforgiving nature masks his compassion, but Donna Migliaccio overpowers as the nurse and madam.
“The Highest Yellow” is at its core a musical about heart. But its message is obscured within a dour saga that gets carried away with its own self-importance.