Poet's Garden

Drawn there by the quality of its sunlight, Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted in Arles and, doing so, put the French provincial town on the map. As we see in this new musical by John Allee and Gary Matanky, he also set it on its ear--and it was at Arles, in fact, that mad Vincent's infamous ear incident took place. It happens in the second act, immediately following a musical epiphany--Fiama Fricano's exquisite, impassioned delivery in her crystalline lyric soprano of the show's climactic aria, "Choices."

Maybe events actually took place as we see here, maybe not; it's how they happen in the authors' tuneful, tender tribute to genius, as well as their wryly gentle acknowledgement of the consternation such genius may cause ordinary mortals. The truth endures, however, in the tall blue iris blooming forever in Vincent's poet's garden; in the night sky that sheds over Arles its starry, starry light; in the questing gaze of Marie Ginoux, "The Arlesienne," surveying infinity.

Marie becomes the play's driving force. The authors give her the edge, and actress Fricano carries it away against stiff competition from Bj?rn Johnson's pugnacious Van Gogh, so volatile, childlike, and vulnerable we wish to protect him from himself. (But as his best buddy, Paul Gauguin, aptly puts it, "He's nuts.") Steven Memel, too, competes for honors as velvet-voiced Gauguin, a charmer you know you can't trust. Their voices soar gloriously in "This Could Be Love," Paul's duet with Marie, but we know it really isn't, and so does he. (And, we suspect, so does she.)

Severe garb conceals rather than reveals her charms; nonetheless, Fricano more resembles Julie Andrews than the stern Arlesienne of Vincent's portrait. Both Van Gogh and Gauguin pursue Marie, and she poses for both, which gives her the rare distinction of being painted by "a lunatic and a savage," as Gauguin, again aptly, observes. Like Madame Bovary, but much less reckless, Marie is ready for romance, and tempted, especially by practiced seducer Gauguin. The explosive romantic triangle leaves the lady's cafe-owning husband, Joseph-Michel, complaining bitterly, "How about me?" Enacted by Michael DeVries, Joseph-Michel is a fine figure of a man--but boring. Brad Blaisdell's gregarious village postman, Joseph, reads the letters he carries and nips from his omnipresent flask. With Dina Bennett as his rosy, chatterbox wife, Augustine, they're jolly neighbors.

Allee and Matanky choose to take a light tone for their (more or less) true story, though there's poignancy to be found in it. As to be expected, skilled director Michael Michetti makes the most of every moment. Melodic music and pleasant lyrics, for the most part, are rather light. A placid, leisurely first act, before the excitement of the second, allows time to bask in the beauty of Katherine Ferwerda's award-worthy set, inspired by Van Gogh's clean lines and glowing hues. Doug Spesert's period-perfect costumes define character. Steven Young's gorgeous, flower-tinted lighting fulfills muse and music, performed by musical director David Holladay (piano), Ira Glansbeek (cello), and John Harvey (percussion).

Poet's Garden's labor of love is another reminder that we are forever in Van Gogh's debt for the blazing beauty he bequeathed. He paid for it with pain and madness and never made a cent, while others have profited greatly. This is supreme and bitter irony.