Husband-and-wife team Jim and Ruth Bauer (he did the script, lyrics, and music; she did the script, videos, and art) follow a group of four friends—German artists and best pals Franz and Max, Swiss performer Hannah, and Polish scientist Maria—from their early days as expatriates in Paris through two world wars, as they develop their talents, foment political change, and passionately love each other. Both Max and Franz fall for Maria, who chooses Franz, with Max taking up with Hannah on the rebound. Franz's death in World War I devastates them, but they thrive under Germany's Weimar government, until the rise of Hitler stifles and scatters them. Max's fame gets him a job teaching in America, and the Bauers tell their tale from the vantage point of his death in New York City in 1955. The formal and serene Mr. O appears to greet Max and guide him through his life's journey.
Director Will Pomerantz orchestrates the many elements into a spellbinding whole and elicits powerful performances from his four leads—Marc Kudisch (Max), Sebastian Arcelus (Franz), Meghan McGeary (Hannah), and Teal Wicks (Maria)—extraordinary singers who also create impressively detailed psychological portraits without the aid of naturalistic writing. Much is communicated in looks and gestures, and all have strong musical moments in which to land their characters. Kudisch excels in Max's second-act breakdown after losing Hannah, when Max lapses into his self-created language of Maxperanto, never again to return to English. McGeary is cunning and cutting in Hannah's Dada performance routines (think a period Maureen from "Rent"). Arcelus is achingly sad in "Heaven," Franz's sung letter from the front, and Wicks soars on the moving Act 1 closer, "Eiffel Tower," in which Maria deals with Franz's death.
Graham Rowat gives Mr. O mystery and dignity, while three "ghost players" serve as his assistants. Joseph Medeiros, Julia Osborne, and Aaron Serotsky dart about stylishly and execute Chase Brock's quirkily effective choreography with precision (I particularly loved an icy, regimented Charleston danced by a grieving black-clad Maria).
The Bauers' formalistic, presentational script, in which narration often dominates, heightens the evening's sense of reserve yet somehow never obscures character. Mr. Bauer's ravishing music, which he has orchestrated himself, mixes appropriate period influences with arresting contemporary sounds and rhythms, emotionally enveloping the show. Ms. Bauer's trenchant videography complements and heightens the action, mixing original work with period film clips, and her art for Max and Franz is both striking and character-defining. Only Mr. Bauer's expressionistic lyrics disappoint a bit, not for their content, which is rich and evocative, but for their craft. Sloppy rhyming, elongated syllables, and misaccents too often impair clarity.
Beowulf Boritt's slightly akimbo raw-wood set of various levels is punctuated with moving staircases and platforms and makes an ideal environment. Ann Hould-Ward's period-redolent costumes, Donald Holder's painterly lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's subtle sound design combine for maximum atmospheric effect.
Like Richter's films, the Bauers' musical is an experiment more likely to influence than enter the mainstream. But if you're up for an adventure, this exhilarating show more than fills the bill.
Presented by and at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Nov. 9–27. Schedule varies. (212) 246-4422 or www.2st.com. Casting by MelCap Casting.