Understanding Maxperanto

A story of love, friendship, loss and artistic as well as scientific progress in the midst of two world wars makes for an interesting, if not complicated musical. The Blue Flower, by Jim and Ruth Bauer, follows Max, Franz, Maria & Hannah as they stumble in and out of each others’ lives over the span of WWI and WWII. It is a compelling tale of artists (and one scientist!) building friendships, falling in love, going off to war, and dealing with loss of all kinds.

One aspect of the story in particular that I found notable was that the character of Max often spoke in a dialect of improvised gibberish, loosely related to the romance languages, but less structurally rigid. This phenomenon stems back to his youth, where he would confuse the school bullies by spouting long streams of Latin at them. It seems that he developed a similar defense mechanism here. Speaking his own language serves as a protective barrier. After all the war, death and heartache in his life, it’s no wonder he retreated into the safe zone of his own made-up language.

It is through this language, though, that we find Max expressing himself most freely. It was a treat and an honor to get to witness Broadway royalty Marc Kudisch perform in these moments. Yes, there were supertitles projected onto the set when he would slip into this alternate language, and from time to time, certain characters would serve as interpreters, but you honestly didn’t need these crutches. Kudisch’s elocution was so specific and emphatic that even when he was speaking gibberish, the audience knew exactly what he was saying. This was only one of the many ways these performers proved themselves supremely talented over the course of the evening. All the actors were incredibly expressive and refined in their interpretations of the text.

Marc Kudisch

This dichotomy of clarity in gibberish is actually applicable to the entire songwriting style of the piece, though. The lyrics, while actually in English, are much less direct, and much more poetic than those of many musicals today. Often, modern musicals include songs written in the conversational vernacular of the piece. Two characters can be having an argument that suddenly begins to add pitches and harmonies, though their words are still conversational. Here, many of the lyrics were in broader brush strokes, speaking in metaphor and other less direct speech. This poetic language could have made the piece a lot harder to understand in the moment, but due to Max’s language affliction, the audience was already primed. We knew we weren’t going to understand every single word, so we learned to listen to the bigger picture of what was being said. When words were back in English again, we were able to keep that same perspective when vocabulary was used that could be considered less-than-accessible. It was a delightful new way in which the form of the musical was integrated with the content.

Teal Wicks

To me, though, something that stood out even more than all that, however, was the incredibly skilled singing. I admit, as a self-proclaimed vocal technique nerd, I’m a bit biased towards the singing, but I was really blown away. Marc Kudisch, Sebastian Arcelus, & Meghan McGeary each proved themselves to be incredible vocalists, in their own rights. I’ll spare you all the details of the intricacies of their approaches to singing, but their vocal performances were truly spectacular for me to witness. I have to say, though, as far as singing goes, Teal Wicks absolutely stole the show with this virtuosic performance. Overall, head voice, chest voice & mix are each beautifully developed in Ms. Wicks, but the truly impressive part is how effortlessly she weaves back and forth between them. Sometimes I heard elements of all three registrations at different points within the same word. She has truly mastered the many facets of her voice, and it is that facility that allows her to be as expressive as she is. With an instrument as refined and capable as hers, she can fully embody musical phrases with all the subtext and emotion of the composer & lyricist’s intentions. She has a myriad of vocal tools at her disposal and is a true virtuoso with each one. It is not every day that I see singers with such versatility and mastery of the subtleties of the human voice. I’m certain we can expect many more great things from Ms. Wicks in the future.

Stephen Schwartz

The Blue Flower is a compelling tale of people with their lives torn apart and tossed about by the two world wars, and the political climates surrounding them. It finds new methods of integrating form with content, and is headed up by some of Broadway’s most incredible and talented performers. It’s playing now at Second Stage (a company notorious for producing fantastic cutting-edge new musicals), and it was produced last year at the American Repertory Theater by Stephen Schwartz–it was the first show he ever produced. This is Stephen Schwartz, people! If you don’t listen to me, listen to him. He knows his musicals, and if he’s backing it, we can safely assume it’s worth our consideration. Go see it!

Michael Montalbano

Columbia Arts Initiative

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