The catchphrase “a new musical” is hardly descriptive of “The Blue Flower,” the work by Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer at Second Stage: There are songs, story, actors and an eight-piece band, but none of them are used in a traditional manner. This is an adventurous, one-of-a-kind and perhaps unforgettable affair; as such, it is likely to thrill a specialized audience while baffling patrons who wander in unsuspectingly. Piece is quite as startling as “The Adding Machine” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” although it might better be described along the lines of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” or Woody Allen’s “Zelig.”
The Bauers have combined music, words, gibberish, art and video into a fascinating whole. The show never stops moving, prodded along by almost constant film projected on a roaming 10-foot square screen made of what seems to be newspaper mixed with papier mache. Film is intrinsic to the story, with the Bauers mixing documentary (and mock-documentary) footage with made-to-order art, hand-drawn captions, and more.
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Story tells of Max Baumann, an Austrian artist specializing in collages. He meets his soulmate Franz in art school in 1910 Berlin. They simultaneously fall for Maria, a scientist, who instantly chooses Franz. Max then finds Hannah, a performance artist. All is well until 1914, when the boys go off to war. Franz, naturally, doesn’t survive. The story continues through the rise of the Nazis and Max’s eventual escape to Manhattan.
This is not simply fanciful plotting on the part of the Bauers; characters seem to be fictionalized versions of post-expressionist artist Max Beckmann, painter Franz Marc, Dadaist Hannah Hock and chemist Marie Curie (who in fact was slightly older than the others).
The story, the art, and the implosion of two World Wars might leave some playgoers understandably overstimulated. (After being labeled a Degenerate Artist in 1937, Max speaks solely in what’s called Maxperanto. But his lecture on the Austrio-Hungarian roots of World War I is nevertheless marvelously clear, thanks to the accompanying film.)
Composer Jim Bauer alleviates the barrage of information and art with an eclectic score. While much of the music is atmospheric in Germany-between-the-wars style, at least eight of the songs soar, with a surprising country-and-western flavor. Bauer also contributes effective orchestrations for strings, accordion and a haunting bassoon.
Marc Kudisch, no stranger to cutting-edge musicals, is close to astonishing as Max. Sebastian Arcelus, late of “Elf,” becomes more impressive with each appearance. He acquits himself especially well with his singing of “Franz’s War” and “Heaven.”
The two women are also exceptional. Teal Wicks, a replacement Elphaba in “Wicked,” is a wonderful find as Maria; she closes the first act with an exquisite solo, “Eiffel Tower,” and combines well with Arcelus for “Love.” Meghan McGeary plays the startling Hannah, and does very well with some difficult Dada material. The composer also gives the four a fine quartet to open the second act, “No Place But Up.” The whole complicated production is well assembled by director Will Pomerantz.
“The Blue Flower” is likely to attract detractors; those who don’t fall under its spell or aren’t in the mood will likely grow impatient. But the Bauers have created a musical theater piece as rare and provocative as a blue flower.