The first to bowl us over, vocally, is Daniel Jenkins as Max (loosely modeled on the figurative painter Max Beckmann). It's the very twilight of his life, and he's sitting in an Upper West Side park, putting what will turn out to be the final touches on a scrapbook of collages. Later, in free-wheeling flashback, we see him in various lecture settings, feverishly sketching the historical context in his own impassioned -- and amusing -- vernacular, "Maxperanto."
As Max muses, the figures in his photo-book come to life: his art-school bosom buddy Franz (dashing Lucas Kavner), based on the expressionist Franz Marc; Marie (Teal Wicks), the hard-working, hard-partying scientist they both loved -- Max platonically, but not for lack of yearning; and cabaret provocateuse Hannah (Meghan McGeary), based on Hannah Höch, a pioneering collagist.
It's absolutely heartbreaking to watch Max trail after his two besotted best friends. Hannah tries to fill the void in his heart, but with limited success: the most Max can summon for her is lust, not love. Hannah will suffer for the lack -- hideously, scarily -- but seeing as she's depicted as a Dadaist performance artist of the irritating, in-your-face ilk, her departure might not strike all as cause for dismay. Meanwhile, it's Marie's loss of Franz that occupies the emotional core of the story.
Wicks, though herself young and fresh, manages to plumb several lifetimes' worth of sorrow in her two laments: "Eiffel Tower" (about the Parisian idyll that Marie and Franz will never get to enjoy) and "(Let It) Slide through Your Hands" (a moving ballad that touches on the acceptance that death forces upon us). As she sings, you may have the sensation that, for one profound moment suspended in time, all around you are steeped in their own memories of loved ones now lost.
Credit is due to producer Stephen Schwartz (whose support elevated the show leaps and bounds above its last, low-budget incarnation, by New York's Prospect Theater Company in 2008), set designer Marsha Ginsberg (who came up with a nondescript wainscoting easily manipulated into ramparts and more), movement director Tom Nelis (who, in addition to serving as the narrator, "Fairytale Man," brings to bear his experience with SITI Company to create indelible stage pictures), and director Will Pomeranz, who whips the whole into a fine, heady froth.