- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

One of the most glorious sights you’re apt to see on the musical stage this season does not involve leggy showgirls in spangled tights, gasp-inducing special effects or costumes so sumptuous they rightfully belong in gilded frames on the walls of the Corcoran Museum of Art.

Instead, it is a naked man with a bloodied bandage wrapped around his ear, sitting in a bathtub and singing the rapturously beautiful title song, “The Highest Yellow,” in Michael John LaChiusa’s world premiere musical about the artist Vincent Van Gogh and his young attending physician, Dr. Felix Rey.

“The Highest Yellow” may be named for the acrid hue used by Van Gogh (Marc Kudisch) in his paintings, but the focus of the musical is on Dr. Rey (Jason Danieley), a tenderfoot intern who treated the artist in Arles in 1888, after Van Gogh cut off his ear and presented it to the prostitute Rachel (Judy Kuhn).

Healing Van Gogh is a fragile process, as the doctor learns that it is this peculiar form of “insanity” that fuels his art. To cure the patient would mean that Van Gogh would not be able to paint again, never again taste “the highest yellow” — the point where color and light become pure emotion. In treating Van Gogh, the doctor goes briefly mad himself, surrendering his conventional preconceptions in favor of the artist’s aesthetic approach to life: “Experience, then feel, then see.”

While thematically similar to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” “The Highest Yellow” is less mannerly and precise than that musical evocation of the world of Georges Seurat. It is a wild and harsh work, and its feverish and sometimes monstrous approach to the idea of obsession puts you in mind of another Sondheim musical, “Passion.” There are also echoes of Kurt Weill in “Yellow’s” back-alley sensuality, and in the discordant strains and tension of the music.

More of a brooding chamber piece than a full-blown musical, “The Highest Yellow” features an exquisite, intense score by Mr. LaChiusa and a book by local playwright John Strand that probes the nature of genius and madness and the difference between love and obsession with discriminating intelligence.

Commissioned by Signature Theatre, the musical boasts outstanding performances, in particular the divinely voiced Mr. Danieley’s tormented Dr. Rey, the shimmering passion of Mr. Kudisch’s Van Gogh and the dark drama of Miss Kuhn’s Rachel. Stephen Gregory Smith, Donna Migliaccio, R. Scott Thompson, and Harry A. Winter are excellent in a variety of supporting roles, most notably Van Gogh’s preying hallucinations.

Eric Schaeffer’s direction is nearly faultless. Setting the action within a sterile hospital, he has left an almost bare canvas. Rather than try to re-create the world of Van Gogh’s paintings, Mr. Schaeffer ingeniously lets the audience color the stage with their own notions of the artist and his art.

The show is not perfect — the second act falters both structurally and thematically before regaining its sure footing near the end — but as a work-in-progress it shows glittering potential. With his compositions for the musicals “Hello Again” and “Marie Christine,” Mr. LaChiusa showed that he never met an emotion he didn’t like. He reaches new heights of dramatic feeling in this story of an artist who strives not to merely paint, but to absorb color and light until it obliterates his very being.

The score is a storm of staccato notes and dissonance that builds to an almost holy fervor, especially in the songs sung by Mr. Kudisch. These songs also convey both the extreme contrasts of light and dark found in the artist’s work, as well as his blunt brushwork.

Dr. Rey’s motifs, on the other hand, are more tentative and light, especially at the beginning, suggesting the doctor’s inexperience. As he gets roughed up a bit, his universe expands, a change reflected in the resonant chaos of the songs “Portrait of Dr. Rey” and “Rachel’s Room.” Perhaps the most straightforward, “musical”-like numbers are reserved for the tough, pragmatic Rachel. These include the traditional ballads “To Make the Light, Lighter” and “Dark and Light.”

The squalid triangle between the doctor, Rachel and Van Gogh threatens, at times, to tip this musical of high intelligence and acute aesthetic sensitivity into romantic melodrama. Happily, it regains its balance near the end, foregoing the romantic tug-of-war in favor of the forging of a separate peace between doctor and patient.

In dramatizing how Van Gogh’s genius affected not only the course of modern art, but also the lives of those around him, “The Highest Yellow” is itself a little like a Van Gogh painting — it changes you, makes you see color and light and love with new eyes.

****

WHAT: “The Highest Yellow,” music by Michael John LaChiusa, book by John Strand

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 12.

TICKETS: $30 to $49

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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