Theatre Review: “The Highest Yellow”

What do you have to die for? Not to live for, but to die for? What do you love so much you would stop breathing for it; what moves you so deeply you want to experience it to the ultimate degree?

For Vincent van Gogh (Marc Kurdish), that would be painting. For his doctor, Felix Ray (Jason Danieley), he would choose Rachel (Judy Kuhn). And for John LaChiusa (music and lyrics), well, he would kill for a decent script. His generally delightful lyrics are sung by wonderful voices over the delicate, piano-driven score, colored by occasional strings and horns. But the book of this world premiere (penned by John Strand) forces clich?d lines on the talented cast and drags down an otherwise excellent production.

LaChiusa and Strand have tackled a difficult subject: The Highest Yellow explores a love triangle between van Gogh, his doctor Felix and the whore they both use in different ways. Yet Rachel is more a prop than anything else; the musical examines the relationship between the two men and the doctor’s discovery of the world at large rather than van Gogh’s madness. Although van Gogh is introduced to the audience in dramatic fashion – wheeled in on a gurney, sedated against the pain of his bleeding stump of an ear – he soon fades into the background behind Felix.

In a standout performance, Kurdish delivers a gentle portrayal of the troubled painter, delivering lines about searching for “a color inside the light/where you can disappear” without a trace of irony. His high point is the title song, delivered in the buff while taking a cold bath to ease his worried psyche. Dr. Felix sits on a stool nearby, watching his patient warily. It takes until the end of the first act for Felix to understand what van Gogh speaks of – that passionate desire to give yourself completely to something.

Similarly, the audience has trouble giving into the fantasy of the show at first. One contributing factor could be the staging. The Signature Theatre – a renovated auto repair garage – is a bare, odd space. But set designer Walt Spangler utilizes the room well, stretching the clinical stage horizontally, placing white tile after exacting white tile into strict lines. These precise ranks endure all manner of abuse, including spatters of blood, water and paint. Gauzy white curtains divide the stage into layers that peel away as the show progresses, eventually revealing the shadowed orchestra.

Similarly, the ensemble removes layers of clothing to reveal different costumes, as each actor plays at least three additional roles. The ensemble is a strong, cohesive unit, coloring in the background around the three main characters, providing the “shadows (that) make the picture brighter,” as Rachel so eloquently sings.

Sadly, this picture never shines as brightly as it should. The Highest Yellow strives for greatness and almost reaches. As one character says, “All artists are mad to one degree or another.” LaChiusa was so committed to his vision of the show that he appears to have overlooked the script, instead focusing on the big picture.

The Highest Yellow will be playing at The Signature Theatre,

3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va. until Dec. 12. Tickets are $37 for general admission seating with discounts available for students. Call (703) 218-6500 for more information.

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