Van Gogh's anguished life is set to music

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 28, 2003 at 12:48 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The life and art of Vincent Van Gogh, the 19th-century Dutch artist, have inspired numerous exhibitions, a small library of books, several films and now an impressive musical by Robert Mitchell, a first-rate theatrical composer-lyricist who should be better known than he is.

The show titled "Vincent" at the Wings Theater in Greenwich Village is the fourth musical written and composed by Mitchell, best known for "Rappacini's Daughter" and "Bags," both produced Off-Broadway. He also has composed extensively for film and written a Latin-jazz arrangement of the music from "Carmen" for a ballet commissioned and performed by the Chicago Ballet Company.

Mitchell's music for "Vincent" is on the dark side as befits a musical that is not a musical comedy. It is sometimes dissonant and often rhythmically quirky but always supportive of the human voice and the emotions expressed by the singers. It would be nice to hear this interesting score fully orchestrated, but for this modest production instrumentation is limited to keyboard and synthesizer.

This premiere production is fortunate to have in the title role Paul Woodson, a compactly built blond tenor with a fair resemblance to the Van Gogh we know from self-portraits. He has an agile, quicksilver voice that serves him well in scenes in which Vincent goes off the deep end, especially when acting out his self-described role in life as a "gruff, scruffy dog" to the horror of his conventional family.

Vincent's frustrations, first as a Dutch Reformed evangelist working thanklessly to alleviate the sordid lives of miners in Belgian coal fields and later as a struggling artist supported by his brother, Theo, are underscored in scene after scene. He loves a cousin who doesn't love him, lives with an ungrateful prostitute and mistakenly thinks he has found a soul mate in painter Paul Gauguin.

The first act dealing with Vincent's failure as art salesman in The Hague and London and his dismissal as an evangelist by disapproving church elders is somewhat slow going, but the second act picks up momentum with Vincent's arrival in Paris where his art-dealer brother introduces him to the Impressionist circle of artists who patronize the Tambourin Café.

The convivial scene in which Vincent is accepted as an artist manqué by the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Paul Signac, Henri Rousseau, and Gauguin is the musical's high point, boasting its only choreographic sequence danced to tango rhythms and involving most of the 19-member cast. It is fun to hear this group tossing about artistic theories in snatches of song that have overtones of "La Boheme."

Mitchell has also given Vincent moments alone on the stage when he tries hard to read events that are sweeping him along to tragedy in an optimistic light. One of these is his sentimental soliloquy to the little chair he has placed in the room set aside for Gauguin's happily anticipated but ill-fated visit with him in Arles. How that visit ended with Vincent severing his own ear is one of the musical's most moving scenes.

Penniless, in and out of mental asylums, and a pawn in the hands of an eccentric medic, Dr. Gachet, Vincent shoots himself in the chest and dies two days later in Theo's arms. His decadelong devotion to painting has garnered him only one sale and a single enthusiastic article by an art critic. Only two years later his work was given a retrospective exhibition that was the first step toward worldwide acclaim.

Outstanding performances are being given by John Wilmes, whose handsomely conceived Gauguin is fleshed out more fully than any of Vincent's fellow artists, Mark Campbell as the ever-supportive Theo, and James Murphy as a bizarrely amusing Dr. Gachet. Sarah Marvel Bleasdale is a remarkably convincing Sien Hoornik, the prostitute who has mixed feelings about Vincent despite his kindness to her and her baby.

Judith Fredricks has done wonders in marshaling the movements of a large cast on a small stage, and Bill Wood's successful suggestion of changing settings without using solid scenery is to be commended. Laura Frecon's costumes designs reflect the era and in some instances are inspired by Vincent's paintings. Bobby Araujo's choreography for the Tambourin scene is limited but effective.

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