Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer's musical The Blue Flower, currently in previews at Second Stage, has an awful lot going for it. Its sweeping, romantic plot covers both world wars, and its complex, interconnected themes explore the fine line between creativity and madness; the highs and lows of love, both romantic and brotherly; the hellishness and deeply unsettling beauty of war; the impact of world history on the national, the local, and the individual. Its book, like its very pretty score, is entirely original. It is not based on a movie, television show, comic strip, or golden oldies radio station.
This production of The Blue Flower makes ample use of projections and short films, which appear on a screen suspended within an interesting, multi-tiered, wooden set, on which the small, excellent cast and notably tight, swinging band perform. Chase Brock's choreography frequently twists the actors' bodies into surprising shapes, and the cast into cool vistas. The show is ably directed. What The Blue Flower lacks, however, is any sort of unifying thread that brings its ingredients--not to mention its enormous thematic ideas and concepts--together into anything approaching a satisfying whole.
The show places focus on Max, a German artist who speaks in his own, invented language that he calls Maxperanto. Max has left Europe--and everyone he loves, living and dead--for the United States during the onset of World War II. As the show begins, Max suffers a fatal heart attack, and the musical proper takes us back through his life--presumably as it flashes before his eyes during his dying moments--from the turn of the century through both wars, with emphasis on the first. Because Max has been working on a book of collages about his past, the show unfolds as a series of memories, which are presented through the use of movement, song, projections, and short films.
Yet The Blue Flower misses the mark. It can't seem to figure out if it's supposed to be serious or flip, which very quickly becomes very frustrating: A lengthy speech that Max gives--entirely in gibberish--about the murder-suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his mistress, is played, it seems, for broad laughs, while the death of a horse amidst a roadside bombing is treated, a bit later, as if it's the worst thing that has ever happened in the entire history of every war that has ever taken place on the planet. What should be funny is often glossed over; what might be truly touching or gently moving gets too bogged down in grandiose ideas to tangle with.
Horses, it seems, carry some sort of symbolic weight in the show, at least given the frequency with which they are mentioned, or shown on projections, but I was never able to catch why; conversely, curiously, the relevance of the blue flower that the musical is named for is given passing mention once. Throughout the show, things that should be justified are not: why is the score, pretty as it is, so steeped in American country and western music? Is it because Max delivers a lecture--in gibberish--in Texas? Speaking of gibberish, why is the need for a whole new language so important? Maxperanto is explained, near the end of the show, but not in any way that is relevatory, or even satisfying. So the use of the made-up language throughout the show becomes just one more gimmick that never finds true relevance.
I can't tell if this show has been workshopped to death, or if it never cohered to begin with, but there seem to be altogether too many ideas and not enough grasp of the source material. A show about Dadaism and Expressionism is a great idea, but not if the aesthetics of these movements fail utterly to translate effectively to the stage. Similarly, a show using film as a backdrop is a great idea--and has been used effectively in all sorts of other productions these days--but not if the projections merely alternate between showing images that don't quite mesh with the live action, and flashing lines of dialogue that the actors have just delivered. What might have added depth and deeper meaning to the show, then, becomes yet another distraction.
In such a mishmash of ideas, innovations, and techniques, the characters quickly get lost. They fall in love, drift apart, fight, forgive, wound and betray, but they remain stick figures throughout: they are Profound Artists, with the exception of one Profound Scientist, but we don't get the chance to draw close to any of them, nor to fully grasp why they all love one another as passionately as we are told they do. So when they die--and they all die, because we all die, eventually--it doesn't really matter. They were never anything but big ideas to begin with.