Marc Kudisch in The Highest Yellow(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Marc Kudisch in The Highest Yellow
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
As painter Vincent Van Gogh left behind the world that most of us inhabit and climbed deeper into his art, he scaled back his use of murky hues, utilizing only the brightest, purest tones in swirls of agreeable contrasts. Van Gogh was always searching for the brightest light to paint by, finding what he called "the highest yellow" -- the tone that he felt most vividly expresses faithfulness, joy, and love, the very essence of life -- in Arles, France. And that's where we meet him, circa 1888-89, in Signature Theatre's lyrically beautiful world premiere presentation of The Highest Yellow.

The first musical commissioned by the acclaimed Arlington, Virginia theater company -- from a concept suggested by artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who helms the production -- The Highest Yellow has been at least five years in the making as composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa busied himself with, among other things, Tony-nominated work on Broadway (The Wild Party, Marie Christine) and R. Shomon, which premiered this past summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Librettist John Strand had his own keyboard smoking, turning out such plays as the Signature-commissioned The Diaries and Tom Walker, written for Arena Stage. (His new adaptation of Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio opens at the Shakespeare Theatre in January.) Though there is some memorable dialogue from Strand ("That's not painting, that's screaming!"), the strength and the passion of The Highest Yellow is found in LaChiusa's dense, almost continuous score, orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and played by a 10-piece orchestra led by Signature's resident music director, Jon Kalbfleisch.

LaChiusa has boldly experimented with a variety of musical styles here, perhaps seeking the sort of agreeable contrasts for the ear that Van Gogh sought for the eye. There are occasionally attempts to contrast what the ears and the eyes are separately experiencing, as in the lilting "Prologue," sung in an operating room as a doctor examines filthy, blood-clotted bandages. As the story unfolds, strains of the delicate melodies of period French music are intricately interwoven with atonal passages; arias and anthems compete for attention as the characters singing them undergo significant changes within themselves and in terms of how they relate to each other and the world; and edgy, fast-paced songs that are jam-packed with exposition in the lyrics flow into serene, almost pastoral airs.

The challenge, Schaeffer has said, was to avoid creating Sunday in the Park with Vincent, which would have been a pointless (so to speak) exercise. While Strand's book may have been substantially swallowed up by LaChiusa's score, his concept of focusing the story on Van Gogh's physician and the effect that the mad artist had on him, rather than on Van Gogh's artistic development, has paid rich dividends in this portrait of obsession. Now, there are several interwoven stories to tell; the result is a varied palette of emotions, motivations, and compulsions to be explored in music, a challenge that seems to have sparked the composer's imagination. The story's essential element is actually not a swirl of color but, instead, a stark triangle: The artist loves his art, a prostitute loves the artist, and the artist's physician loves the prostitute. This pushes the physician to the brink of madness. He begins to selfishly manipulate his treatment of the artist, who is in a hospital recovering both from the physical act of slicing off his ear in order to present it to the prostitute and from the madness that gave him the idea. The prostitute, meanwhile, is not above conning the doctor in order to try to secure her future with the artist.

As Van Gogh, Marc Kudisch bears a startling resemblance to the painter with his hair and beard dyed a rich orange. While his voice soars magnificently in the more symphonic passages, Kudisch's blustering approach doesn't always mesh successfully with the high, sometimes lightly sung tenor notes required of the character and the tentative emotional/psychological state in which Van Gogh finds himself much of the time. A scaling back of the bravado in certain scenes might allow more of the sensuality of the half-stepped notes and the combination of minor and major keys with which LaChiusa limns the character to be savored. (Of course, it takes a certain amount of bravado to sing the title song, "The Highest Yellow" -- a magnificent aria that expresses Van Gogh's wish to simply disappear into the color -- while squatting naked and wet in a bathtub.

The physician, Dr. Felix Rey, is played by Jason Danieley. The character undergoes a critical transformation that provides the dramatic momentum for the play, and Danieley superbly negotiates his degeneration from a ramrod straight, ambitious man of medicine to a conflicted, insecure prisoner of love (or lust). The actor projects elegance and grace in the earlier scenes, making Rey's eventual moral collapse all the more profound. In "Somewhere: Paris," at the top of the show, Danieley as Rey bursts with hope as the song begins in rapid patter and evolves into a stirring hymn that he sings with Stephen Gregory Smith, who plays several supporting roles. By the time he gets to the fiery "Portrait of Doctor Rey" late in Act II, the veins in Danieley's temples are actually popping with madness and his voice is an instrument of anguish.

Judy Kuhn and Jason Danieley inThe Highest Yellow(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Judy Kuhn and Jason Danieley in
The Highest Yellow
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
As the prostitute Rachel, Judy Kuhn is less successful at creating a nuanced character. Her singing is sublime -- particularly in the very pretty "His Heart," wherein Rachel expresses her love of Van Gogh's spiritual and artistic purity, and in the symphonic tour de force, "Rachel's Room," the emotional high point of the show; she shares that number with Danieley and Kudisch, and it's a mélange of dissonance and harmony as all three characters foresee the shattering of their dreams. But Kuhn has created a one-dimensional, hard shell for the woman that makes it difficult to see why the physician is so captivated by her and why Van Gogh returns to her again and again despite his declarations of emotional independence.

A further musical highlight of the score is "Have You Ever Loved?", an idyllic paean to passion sung by Signature regular Harry A. Winter as Dr. Rey's stern but dedicated superior, Dr. Urpar. Another familiar Signature presence, Donna Migliaccio, skillfully plays several roles and is especially terrific in a song that may become a favorite among performers: the Act Two opener "Intermezzo: The Madam's Song," an energetic but cynical look at love that showcases her wide vocal range.

Walt Spangler's set is built along one long wall of Signature's rectangular black box, creating a wide but shallow stage that brings the entire audience close. With the orchestra nestled on a platform behind the sterile hospital setting (which, with minor changes of drapes, also serves as a brothel and Van Gogh's room), the performers are able to sing sans microphones and still be clearly heard. The natural sound adds the extra layer of intimacy and feeling that is a signature of Signature, and one hopes it will not be lost when the troupe moves to larger quarters next season. As you might expect, Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting is almost a character in the show -- starkly bright to create a medical ambiance, with strikingly bold patterns playing out as doctor and patient are both swallowed up by the highest of the yellows.