Dada is not easy to represent in musical form. By definition, it seeks to ridicule traditionally defined artistic genres. Husband and wife team Jim and Ruth Bauer have attempted to invoke the spirit of Dada — with only partial success — in their new musical The Blue Flower, which Prospect Theater Company is currently staging at the West End Theatre. The show, directed and choreographed by Will Pomerantz, is stylish and musically impressive, and yet it doesn’t always cohere into a satisfying theatrical experience.
The piece follows artists and best friends Max (Marcus Neville) and Franz (Robert Petkoff), who meet in Berlin, move to Paris together, and get drawn into the First World War. Along the way, they meet brilliant young scientist Maria (Nancy Anderson) who becomes romantically involved with Franz, and Dada performer Hannah (Meghan McGeary), who hooks up with Max.
A master of ceremonies — dressed in a suit and bowler hat, and listed in the program as “Fairy Tale Man” (Jamie LaVerdiere) — watches over the proceedings, and narrates different segments. He’s assisted by two other men, also in suits and bowler hats, portrayed by Jason Collins and Eric Starker. They help to contribute to the dream-like feel of the production, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, and frequently shifts location.
Unfortunately, the musical relies overmuch on narrative exposition to make the transitions clear. Video — created by the Bauers and projected onto a white portion of Nick Francone’s set — is also used to connect scenes or to provide a thematic visual backdrop to what’s being said or sung.
Character development is in short supply, with the Bauers sketching out broad types in their book scenes and relying on the individual songs to fill in the emotional resonances. This works nicely with Franz and Maria’s duet, “Love,” which is suffused with longing and desire, and Anderson’s heartfelt solo, “Eiffel Tower,” which is a lonely portrait of grief. But it’s less successful with tunes like “Master This,” which McGeary sings as Hannah is packing up some of her possessions.
The often captivating score owes a great debt to Kurt Weill and the musical stylings of Weimar cabaret. However, there are also other influences, such as a pop rock sensibility in the Max-Hannah duet, “Eyes and Bones,” and a country-and-western tinge to “Dark Party.” The odd choice to include both an accordion and a bassoon in the onstage orchestra contributes greatly to the show’s unique sound. Unfortunately, the quality of the singers’ microphones is inconsistent, resulting in a few garbled lyrics.
One of the more problematic choices within the musical is that the majority of Max’s spoken text is in a made-up, vaguely Germanic, mumbled language the show calls “Maxperanto.” The words are usually translated either on the screen or by an onstage interpreter, but the joke wears thin quickly and the reasons for why he talks in such a manner is never really made clear, other than its part of the Dada aesthetic of the show as a whole.
Despite McGeary’s striking presence, the musical sequences devoted to Hannah’s Dada performances come across as self-consciously bizarre rather than emotionally or politically heartfelt. This is especially true of her first song, “Puke.” Indeed, the entire cast does creditable work, and Anderson is particularly noteworthy in the vocal department. Ultimately, though, The Blue Flower doesn’t really shed much light on the Dada movement or even on its central characters.