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The Highest Yellow

by Rich See

The child in the cradle has the infinite in his eyes.
---Vincent van Gogh

Marc Kudisch
Marc Kudisch (Photo: Carol Pratt)

Signature Theatre's world premiere of Michael John LaChiusa and John Strand's The Highest Yellow glows with a fiery heat and seems bound for bigger stages. The music flows, the lyrics veer between touching and humorous, the acting is wonderful, and the sterile hospital set brings the horrors of 19th century medicine to life. It's an interesting mix of enthralling and disturbing, which holds your attention to the very last touching scene. Put through its paces in workshops for the past five years, the production shows the love its authors have put into the whole endeavor. Although the action in Act Two picks up over Act One, the entire piece is enjoyable and flows smoothly.

Set in a backwards, provincial hospital in Arles, France, The Highest Yellow details Vincent van Gogh's relationship with Felix Rey, the doctor who treated van Gogh when the artist cut off his ear. This was a tumultuous period in the painter's life when he was embarked on a massive creative explosion while at the same time slipping in and out of the madness that resulted in his eventual death from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. It's a gritty musical, where medical terms are parts of song lyrics and blood flows freely across the stage. The plot centers around the two men's opposite dynamics - one devoid of feeling, the other feeling too much. Intermixed is a love triangle that is really a quadrangle -- Felix is in love with the prostitute Rachel, Rachel is in love with Vincent, and Vincent is in love with experiencing his art. So much so, that van Gogh purposely shut himself off from the world to protect his creativity. Like a monk, he sought to nurture his muse and experience his gifts as fully as possible.

In the role of the famed painter, Marc Kudisch presents a van Gogh who is unaware of the immense personal power he has and how it affects those around him. His doctor has become obsessed with him, a local prostitute loves him, the townspeople hate and fear him, and Vincent moves through this turmoil simply wanting to paint and be at peace. As described by his lover, Rachel (played by Judy Kuhn), Vincent is "Too big for this too little world." van Gogh literally feels the energy of the world and the colors of light that create it. And Mr. Kudisch seems to relish this chance to bring the artist's aura alive in a wonderful performance where he is the shining focal point whenever he is on stage.

Possessing an exceptional voice, Jason Danieley as Dr. Felix Rey is superb. His Rey starts out as a cold, superior intellectual, moves into a love struck school boy, and emerges as a betrayer and ultimately, victim, of his embracement of Vincent's creative vision. It's an interesting point that the playwright makes -- being an artist is hard work and takes great mental, emotional, and physical strength. It's not a path for the faint of heart. And while Vincent fights his own demons that are pushing him towards his death, Rey is convalescing in an environment of safety after the tables have been turned and he falls into a love struck madness from which he does not wish to emerge. Mr. Danieley takes us on this transformational journey and leaves us angry with Rey while simultaneously sympathizing with him.

Ms. Kuhn's Rachel, is the only person who sees Vincent for who he truly is -- someone showing the rest of us the essence of our physical world and the passions and emotions that run through every line of our lives. When she points out to Rey "You need the dark to make the light" she's explaining to us why she wants to go away with Vincent who doesn't love her instead of with Rey who is obsessed with her. van Gogh's work is totally beyond the mental and emotional scope of the town (and the times), however Rachel sees the inner genius that Vincent possesses. Ms. Kuhn does a terrific job of showing the tenderness within the aloofness of this seemingly fragile character who ends up being a greater survivor than Rey.

Director Eric Schaeffer pushes his cast to explore that grey area where chaos and sanity co-mingle in bringing this piece to the stage. While LaChiusa and Strand have the patients at the hospital raving at delusions and thus confined to protect themselves, their main characters revolve in their own self-created illusions trying to hold onto their flickering hopes even when their worlds eventually shatter. Once again Mr. Schaeffer shows a keen touch for the subtle and the over-the-top as he plays with this juxtaposed duality. He has purposely created as sterile an environment as possible to showcase how an artist who is consumed by passionate emotions could be slowly destroyed by the limiting environment around him.

Walt Spangler's set design is very much a lab for experimentation. And Dr. Rey is the experimenter, much like Dr. Jekyll. The stage is a cat walk upon which the actors flash by displaying their emotions as models in a fashion show. White tiled floor, white walls, white examining room curtains, huge heavy wood doors, almost no props, and dangling utility lights create this place that is more prison than medical facility. And in fact, cells appear behind the curtains as patients' rooms (and creatively where the orchestra is stationed). The only feeling of warmth comes from the tiny gas heat registers that flicker ever changing lights depending upon the mood of the stage. Anne Kennedy's costumes shine most with the richly textured and colorful wardrobes she provides Rachel and the Madame (played by Donna Migliaccio). Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting is stark and effective, especially at the end of each act when the bright neon yellow lights emerge to fill the stage.

In supporting roles, Donna Migliaccio turns the Madame into a fun moment when she questions "What's the cure for love?" during "The Madam's Song." As Dr. Urpar, Harry Winter creates an authoritarian figure motivated by love -- the only person content in their life -- who advises Dr. Rey that working at the rural hospital is more of an opportunity than he realizes. Stephen Gregory Smith and R. Scott Thompson finish up a stellar cast.

Some of the song highlights are "The Highest Yellow" sung by Marc Kudisch (in a bathtub), Harry Winter's "Have You Ever Loved?", Judy Kuhn's "His Heart" and "To Make the Light, Lighter," a duet between Ms Kuhn and Jason Danieley. Also, the "Final Act One" with Mr. Kurdish and Mr. Danieley is stirring.

There have been many debates on what Vincent van Gogh's health problems may have been. Epilepsy, dementia, schizophrenia, manic depression, addiction to absinthe, and even sunstroke have all been suggested. Within the last few years, Meniere's disease, which is an illness that causes an imbalance in the fluids in the inner ear, has been put forth. One can't get away from the idea though that van Gogh's physical and mental health attributed to his art and how he viewed the world. His demons have become our blessings. It's this thought that comes to mind when Marc Kudisch ends the play with "Affectionately, your devoted Vincent." The Highest Yellow is one of the best musicals I've seen in a while. I hope you take the opportunity to catch it!

The Highest Yellow
Music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Book by John Strand
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
with Jason Danieley, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Donna Migliaccio, Stephen Gregory Smith, R. Scott Thompson, Harry A. Winter
Musical Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Lighting Design: Daniel MacLean Wagner
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Sound Design: Tony Angelini
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA
Telephone: 703-218-6500
TUE - WED @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $30 - $49
Opening 10/26/04, closing 12/12/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 11/14/04 performance
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