Like the collages that its protagonist-artist creates, “The Blue Flower” is a music-theater piece that is a wild mash, abundant in imagery and imagination. But for all its bold visuals, music and staging, the world preem, shepherded by composer Stephen Schwartz, lacks emotional resonance to ground its creative aspirations.
This multi-media work, given an extravagant production at American Repertory Theater, is in need of less art and more craft. The show desperately calls out for a hand that can sharpen the storytelling, edit the excess and give depth to the main characters who, for all the Sturm und Drang around them, remain passive and shallow figures in an epic tale that attempts to be a grand romance of historic proportions.
The time-jumping piece centers on three European artists and a scientist who get swept up in the shifting geo-political landscape during the first half of the 20th century. Max (Daniel Jenkins) and Franz (Lucas Kavner) becomes friends in art school who meet and fall in love with Maria (Teal Wicks), a brilliant young scientist, who is smitten with Franz. They befriend Hannah (Meghan McGeary), a performance artist, who is attracted to Max, who still pines for Maria.
Enter World War I and the death of one of the quartet. Which changes everything — but then again nothing really changes except the march of the terrible history of two world wars.
Instead of playing their scenes, the characters spend much of the time indicating the mourning of their losses — unrequited love, the death of friends and lover, their
innocence — which are narrated by the archly named Fairytale Man (a perpetually sardonic Tom Nelis) or through collage-y video clips, created by Jim and Ruth Bauer.
Stylistically, “The Blue Flower” reflects the artistic world of its time — from Dada and the surrealism movements to Brecht/Weill cabaret to street performers to cinema — and much of the musical numbers in the show’s first act lands effectively, echoing these influences.
But in the drawn-out second act, one longs for the delivery of its artistic promise and a satisfying whole made up of more than these scattered deconstructed parts.
There’s no denying the considerable talent involved, however. Jim Bauer’s often beguiling music — as terrifically played by an eight-piece onstage band — is rich in melody, daring in structure and playful in its eclectic style, especially when he mixes country-and-western music into the mix or lands a romantic ballad squarely front and center, such as Wick’s stunning stand-alone song, “Eiffel Tower.” (His lyrics, while lovely in some numbers, grow tiresome in their preciousness.)
Leads are vocally solid and Jenkins especially invests Max with far more than what’s on the page. But in the end, “The Blue Flower” is a show to behold as an art object, not yet to be loved as a emotionally connected theatrical creation.