Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Asian Story Theater is work-shopping this new musical. The project was ready for a tryout and, with tinkering and revising, could have a long life to come.
The subject was a complicated individual, who strove with all his might for simplicity. Gauguin (1848-1903) was a successful stockbroker in Paris. He married, had five children, and eventually moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. Somewhere along the way he became discontented with civilization - and became a painter, who spent nine weeks in Arles working with Vincent Van Gogh (and, in at least one account, may have accidentally lopped off Van G's ear).
Gauguin left his wife and family and sailed to French Polynesia, where he painted what became world famous post-Impressionist and Primitivist canvases- and had several children by various mistresses.
He's often depicted as lounging in the tropics, waited on by island maidens. But most of his life was a battle for artistic freedom against forces that found their way even to the once-pristine Marquesas.
Kent Brisby's book doesn't flinch at showing the artist's sides and conflicts (his cigar-smoking Danish wife, for example, has her full say about his selfishness). The script has a persistent difficulty, however, in trying to tell the whole story.
The book moves chronologically: from Gauguin's birth in Paris, to Peru, back to France, to Denmark, to Tahiti, and so on, with appropriate music for each. But having to account for every stop moves the narrative in episodic fits and starts (and makes the constant introduction of new characters and locales hard to follow). Compressing details and parts of the long journey could help shore up the problem.
A second difficulty: Act two needs more drive. It continues the trend of short hit-and-run scenes and could use a more rousing climax.
Though less strong in the second act, the music - by various composers - ranges from very good to wonderful. The numbers have a multicultural flavor and a distinct signature: a group of guitars accompany them (and a Gauguin-like mandolin).
The most striking: near the end of Act one, three women sing several songs woven together: "Mette's Goodbye," "Teha's Goodbye," and "Uncertainty," followed by "River Meets the Sea," written by Brisby and Opetaia Foa'i. I wish I had a copy.
Outstanding projections also tell the story. Along with Gauguin's extraordinary paintings - those burnt reds, yellows, and golds! - slides show scenes and faces from his life, including a history of Van Gogh's works.
When the musical's ready for a full production, Brisby can keep all in his cast. Except for persistent sound problems (and often losing key words in overdone accents), all contribute. Byron LaDue most of all. He plays Gauguin and never once hypes the role (as has everyone who ever did the part), and never once hits a false note.
11/13 - Centro Cultural de la Raza, 2125 Park Boulevard, Balboa Park at 8:00 p.m. 11/18 - Bali Hai Restaurant, 2230 Shelter Island Drive at 8:00 p.m. 11/19 - Healii's Polynesian Revue, 7499 Convoy Court, Clairemont, 7:30 p.m. 11/20 - Bali Hai Restaurant, at 6:00 p.m. 11/25 - Maritime Museum, 1492 North Harbor Drive, downtown, at 8:00 p.m. 11/26 - Maritime Museum, at 8:00 p.m. 11/27 - Maritime Museum, at 6:00 p.m. 619-527-2816. For directions see Theater Listings.