The Blue Flower (Second Stage) is a big, ambitious, elaborately multi-mediated musical about art and war. Two artists who become best friends, Franz (Sebastian Arcelus) and Max (Marc Kudisch), both love a woman scientist (Teal Wicks); the loser consoles himself with an avant-gardiste (Meghan McGeary). Into this tangled tale, the show tries to cram half a century of European history, political and aesthetic, from Mayerling and the rise of modernism to refugee life in post–World War II New York. Unsurprisingly this enormous task forces author-composers Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer, who also collaborated on the film sequences that often interact with the stage scenes, to fight a losing battle on two fronts: They reduce history to mere base-touching, while letting its events supplant any chance of learning what makes the four characters tick.
We see little of the characters in action: Much of the script consists of narration, mostly by an anonymous Mr. O. (Graham Rowat). An aura of secondhand generalizing hangs over the piece, smothering its good moments in recycled elements from every documentary you’ve ever seen about the two world wars and the years between them. When Franz, who’s crazy about horses, joins the cavalry in World War I, we get a flicker of War Horse. When Max, in postwar despair, babbles in a nonsense language (the script calls it “Maxperanto”), we get simultaneous translation on-screen, suggesting a Euro-retro version of Ch’inglish.
The Bauers’ score, given an inventively colorful orchestration by Jim Bauer, adds to the evening’s pre-owned quality by putting it in a pop-rock idiom, heavily spiced with a sort of Kurt Weill curry powder for period flavor. It weirdly slides into country rock whenever these ultra-urban Bohemians start partying.
Still, the good moments exist, mainly provided by the actors under Will Pomerantz’s direction. Max being the central focus, Kudisch in particular gets to display the spectacular resources that make him one of our finest leading men: the solid, lovely singing voice; the solid emotional grounding that empowers his presence even when silent; the madcap comic sense that can transform him instantly from ardent romantic hero to adorable buffoon. The sequence in which he explains history, in “Maxperanto,” to a Texas ladies’ club will put this show in many people’s memory books. Wicks acts movingly; Arcelus sings beautifully. But Germans see society as balancing Dichter und Bauer, poet and peasant. This show has two Bauers, but, regrettably, no Dichter.