Musical on 17th-century Dutch tulip craze fails to flower

Posted: June 01, 2012

Michael Ogborn's new musical Tulipomania, commissioned by the Arden Theatre, has been through six years of development, several scripts, plus the addition and eventual subtraction of playwright Michael Hollinger ( Opu s Ghost-Writer). Its story, pegged to the 17th-century Dutch tulip craze, remains a topical match for any number of parallels: subprime mortgage crisis, real estate bubble, Facebook IPO.

No stranger to the Arden, Ogborn premiered two other musicals there - Baby Case and Cafe Puttanesca - both, like Tulipomania, directed by the company's artistic director, Terry Nolen. And yet, despite all these factors, Ogborn's bulb still doesn't bud.

Well, buds may be part of the problem. A forced conceit sets the tale in an Amsterdam hash bar, where patrons arrive to get high and relax but instead find themselves drafted into Owner's (Jeffrey Coon) time-traveling psychodrama, wherein a Bernie Madoff-style American swindler becomes a manic Flemish tulip trader. Unfortunately, this feat's execution is far more conventional and far less interesting than it sounds.

Man (Adam Heller), Woman (Joilet Harris), Young Woman (Alex Keiper), and Painter (Ben Dibble) toggle between their present-day and historical counterparts, as Waiter (Billy Bustamante) occasionally strikes a wind chime or flits around the shop. Perhaps Ogborn might have more luck with his contemporary overlay if we were eased into Owner's fantasia - the patrons get higher, reality blurs - but we'd still be left with clunky then-now parallels and characters who behave like sample sizes rather than humans.

Arthur Miller didn't need time travel to hammer home his point in The Crucible, and Stephen Sondheim separated Sunday in the Park With George's past and present into two acts. It's not as if Ogborn's attempting an experimental form; he's just filling a straightforward story with stems and seeds. This missed opportunity becomes all the more apparent when a patron asks Owner what made Semper Augustus, the most sought-after bulb, so valuable. "Its disease," he responds - the tulip's wild colors result from a virus. This was a story with its own built-in metaphor all along.

Ogborn's music fares better, at least in its tunefulness, but too often the songs, in a potpourri of styles from Middle Eastern to American folk, sound as if their lyrics, like the hash bar, were wedged into this piece, rather than emerging naturally from its themes. "Woman's Song," a bluesy number sung by Woman (in her guise as long-suffering 17th- century wife to Man), contains the awkward line "Always waiting for the other wooden shoe to drop," and "In Praise of Tulipan," an out-of-context gospel clap-along, exists beside "Beauty," a love song that appears with a sudden blast of romance that's equally disorienting and unearned.

I've said it before, and will say it again: When a musical's leading characters are called "Man" or "Woman," it's often a bad sign. Surely full-grown characters expected to carry both a tune and a show's emotional core deserve the dignity of names.

Nolen manages to put beating hearts into those tinny chests, and while the Arden's production, including its first-rate cast, James Kronzer's cozy worn-wood cafe set, and Dan Kazemi's musical direction boom, Ogborn's material, much like those long-ago Dutch tulips, is a bust.


Tulipomania

Through July 1 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. Tickets: $29-$45. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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