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‘Blue Flower’ doesn’t quite bloom

ART’s visually striking show struggles to connect musically and emotionally

“The Blue Flower’’ at the American Repertory Theater tells the story of a scientist and three artists struggling in the tumult of the first half of the 20th century. “The Blue Flower’’ at the American Repertory Theater tells the story of a scientist and three artists struggling in the tumult of the first half of the 20th century. (Marcus Stern)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — The songwriting team of Kander and Ebb famously proclaimed that life is a cabaret, old chum. To that, the creative team behind “The Blue Flower’’ might add that history is, too.

In this multimedia musical by the Beverly-based husband-and-wife team of Jim and Ruth Bauer, now at the American Repertory Theater in a production directed by Will Pomerantz, a scientist and three artists struggle amid the tumult of the first half of the 20th century.

“The Blue Flower’’ is a decidedly mixed bag. It generates consistent kinetic energy with set pieces built on a skillful blend of stage movement and video projections. This “Flower’’ is abloom with arresting imagery; its overall visual texture ensures that it is never less than watchable.

But a musical must captivate the ear, and, on that score, “Blue Flower’’ falls short. Too many of the songs, which draw their inspiration from Weimar-era cabaret and country music, come across as generic or abstract.

So, in large part, do the characters. Even in a stylized work like this, we need to feel some sense of connection with the protagonists for the full emotional weight of the ballads — and there are a few lovely ones — to hit home.

The characters were inspired by the Polish-born physicist Marie Curie and three German artists: Max Beckmann, Hannah Höch, and Franz Marc.

Earlier versions of the show were performed in New York in 2004 and 2008, and Stephen Schwartz — the lyricist and composer of “Wicked,’’ “Godspell,’’ and “Pippin ’’ — became a champion of this work and introduced it to Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the ART.

A somber tone is established right off the bat with “Things Don’t Change (That Much),’’ sung by an artist named Max (Daniel Jenkins). “The Blue Flower’’ is at its best when evoking the trauma of war and the unappeasable pain of loss. And loss hits early, in several forms.

Shortly after Max and Franz (Lucas Kavner) become friends in art school in Berlin, they move to Paris in 1914 and fall in love with the same woman, Maria (Teal Wicks). Alas for Max, Maria loves Franz. “Franz and Maria became lovers of the kind that are carved into marble, the kind by which all things rare and beautiful can be measured,’’ we are told.

As for poor Max, his passion is destined to remain unrequited for a lifetime. War is declared, and the trio heads back to Berlin. Soon, Franz and Max head off to the front: Franz as a cavalry officer, Max as a medic and a correspondent. Franz dies during the war. Max eventually takes up with an artist named Hannah (Meghan McGeary), who joins him on the front as a medical volunteer.

“Blue Flower’’ jumps back and forth in time from 1955 to 1889, but most of the action is centered in Berlin before and after World War I. The protagonists revel in the early cultural freedom of Germany’s Weimar Republic (“Everything was dark and light,’’ says Max), but soon the shadows of Nazism begin to gather.

The songs that work best are the ones that speak most directly. Wicks and Kavner team up for “Love,’’ a touching duet, and Wicks delivers a wrenchingly heartfelt version of “Eiffel Tower,’’ in which she mourns the dead Franz: “Each day is like no other/ No century like another/ In a river every moment passing new/ This day was like no other/ I climbed the Eiffel Tower/ And saw the rooftops from the angel’s view.’’

By stark contrast, McGeary compellingly evokes the horrors of war with a cabaret-style number titled “Puke,’’ in which she brandishes a World War I gas mask and communicates a timeless antiwar statement. “I can’t possibly eat as much as I’d like to puke/ Into the shiny boots of jingoes making news/ Who was it who said we’d be better off dead?/ Some bloodless fool who always laid alone in bed.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THEATER REVIEW

THE BLUE FLOWER Music, lyrics, and script by Jim Bauer. Story and artwork by Ruth Bauer. Videography by Jim and Ruth Bauer.

Directed by Will Pomerantz.

Movement director, Tom Nelis; sets, Marsha Ginsberg; lights, Justin Townsend; costumes, Carol Bailey.

Presented by American Repertory Theater at Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Jan. 8. Tickets 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org.