AISLE SAY Philadelphia

LA VIE EN BLEU A New Musical

Music by Pascal Stive
Original Book and Lyrics
by Jean-Michel Beriat and Raymond Jeannot
Literal Translation by C. H. Popesco
English Book by Bruce Lumpkin and Bill Van Horn
English lyrics by Elaine Rowan
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin
Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Playing Sept 2nd - October 19th, 2003 Box Office: (215) 574-3550 Website: Reviewed by Claudia Perry

Walnut Street Theatre's season opener is a new musical from France. Six years ago when a Walnut subscriber was vacationing abroad they saw, "La Vie en Bleu" in a concert/pageant format and passed the word onto Artistic Director, Bernard Havard. It originally premiered in the Monaco Principality and was performed with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the program celebrating the 700th Anniversary of the Grimaldi dynasty. "La Vie en Bleu" (Life in Blue), about the life of Picasso, is a great idea for a musical. But this piece should more aptly be named, "The Loves of Picasso", for that is what it primarily focusses on. The main characters are Picasso, his young colleague Carlos Casegamus and the women in Picasso's life -- Germaine Pichot, Fernande Olivier, Eva Humbert, Olga Koklova , Marie Therese Walter and Gertrude Stein. The emphasis of the story line is on his romances with these women (excepting of course, Gertrude Stein.). Since the thrust of the story is on his physical prowess with and passion for women, I find it odd that they failed to include the fact that he was known to be physically abusive with his partners. In only one instance was his explosive temper alluded to.

The piece starts out with a very old Picasso waking his grandson up in the middle of the night to paint. These two characters remain onstage for almost all the piece, watching the action and commenting on it. Born in Spain, Picasso moves to Paris to paint with his best friend, Carlos, whom he loses to suicide. Picasso then takes up with the woman that Carlos shoots himself for, Germaine. He then meets Fernande, a writer, and declares her his muse, insisting that she give up writing to take care of him. Gertrude Stein becomes his patron and champions his work helping him to meet with early success. He leaves Fernande for Eva who dies of Tuberculosis. Act II sees Picasso collaborate on a ballet with Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau, wherein he meets and marries Olga, a Russian ballerina with whom he has a child. Olga gives up the ballet and becomes too middle-class for Pablo. When he brings home a new mistress, Marie Therese, Olga confronts him. Picasso suggests that he can love them both, but the women reject him. Alone, he hears the news of the destruction of the Basque town of Guernica. Picasso responds by creating his masterpiece of the same name.

Although there are only four paramours, the book seems to cover the same ground with each one. There is the seduction, the conquest and then the inevitable break up. And though it might be an erotic roller coaster for Picasso, for us it just seems monotonous. Perhaps if there was more of a balance between his work and his women the story would hold us. But it's hard for us to get involved in the painting because we never see any throughout the evening -- except Guernica . The director Bruce Lumpkin has chosen for us to see only empty, white canvasses. We know "what" Picasso is painting - for we see him sketching throughout the entire evening - he sketches the birth of a baby, Spanish dancers, French cabaret artists, his models. And there are two stunning tableaus: One, with all the clowns and circus acrobats that Picasso becomes enamoured with in his Pink Period, and the other when the people of Guernica are massacred. I wish there had been more of this "posing" to help us "get the picture". However, we never see what the finished paintings look like. Perhaps Mr. Lumpkin assumes that Picasso's oeuvres are so well known that we would automatically know what he was painting at any given point in his life. Unfortunately, this is not the case with everyone.

The music by Pascal Stive is highly dramatic and many times soaring, but rarely memorably melodic. However, it does ooze with ambience - both Spanish and French and director Lumpkin has played up this aspect visually. For visually, it is great fun to look at. The set by John Farrell is one big, white studio draped in fluid, white curtains. The walls become red, blue or pink as the scene demands. The cast is dressed in variations of black on black (excepting Picasso who wears a peasant outfit in a nondescript dark, grayish, greenish color) which I thought was an exciting choice and well executed by costume designer Colleen McMillan. The only characters who wear colors other than black are Picasso's women. Who all, at some point, wrap themselves in a shiny, white sheet removing their black clothes underneath. Is the conceit that Picasso now conceives them as naked and new? Though the satiny material looks wonderful onstage and is a relief from the black, it doesn't make any logical sense. If Picasso were going to paint a woman, naked, she would simply take off her clothes. And if, on the other hand, Picasso were going to make love to her, then he would take off her clothes. Sheets would never come into it. But I imagine that the Walnut would not cottton to any nudity on stage and so we are left with watching Picasso watch his women be naked. He gets an eyeful but we don't.

The use of a Pas de Deux to denote Picasso's muse is only partially successful. Since Picasso was a great lover and a great egotist, the other man seems a distraction and one that Picasso never would have tolerated. It might have been more effective to have a lone female dancer dance with and around the painter. And her costume could have changed to correspond to Picasso's different periods - blue, pink, cubist, abstract -- just as the sets do, to great success.

Jeffrey Coon as Picasso sings a challenging musical score for two and a half hours quite admirably and is very believable as the egotistic and domineering lover. Jessica Boevers has a lovely vocal quality and brings an effortlessness to her role as Eva. Rebecca Robbins and Joan Hess were both very good as Olga and Fernande.

Bill Van Horn does a good job as the crusty, old Alzheimer ridden Picasso. Ben Dibble seems a bit too intense as the tortured Carlos, but then he has to commit suicide after being on stage for a very short amount of time. Michelle Gaudette as Picasso's dancing muse is lyrical and lovely to watch and adds a nice fluidity to the piece. The ensemble of singers and dancers who are very endemic to this production do more than an adequate job. But, unfortunately, the orchestra was so loud (especially during some of the rock numbers) that I couldn't understand many of the lyrics. And the trio,"Believe, Succeed", the first number which opens Act II, lyrically was completely lost to me.

I do believe there can be an engaging musical here somewhere buried beneath all the pretty trappings of sexy black cabaret clothes, white drapes and romantic interludes -- but it has yet to emerge from the incarnation currently at the Walnut

For tickets call the Box Office at (215) 574-3550 or log onto the Walnut's Website at:

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