For the world premiere musical “La Casa Azul” (through June 29 at the Tarkington), Gregory Hancock serves as composer, co-lyricist, costume designer, choreographer, director and producer. Short of “Citizen Kane”-era Orson Welles or Bugs Bunny playing every position in the classic Looney Tunes short “Baseball Bugs,” it’s difficult to find examples of a single artist wearing so many hats.
With an over three-hour running time, dozens of numbers, and more than 40 performers on stage, I can’t recall an Indy-birthed production staged on the scale of this musical biography of artist Frido Kahlo (played by a tireless Jessica Crum Hawkins). As such, it’s easy to be awed by the ambition of this visual striking but dramatically undeveloped production.
Reminiscent of such pop bio operas as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” (but without the former’s focused time frame or the latter’s strong narrative voice), “La Casa Azul” begins in 1954 on Kahlo’s 47th birthday and two threads emerge quickly that eventually prove problematic.
The first is Kahlo’s dependence on artist Diego Rivera (Bernie Hirsch). Variations on such lyrics as “You are everything” and “I’m nothing without him” are sung repeatedly. Whether her childlike dependence here on how she looked through “Diego’s Eyes” (the title of an early song) is truthful historically or not, it doesn’t work dramatically. The show seems to embrace her dependence as being admirable, turning her into a one-note character that makes Julie “Carousel” Jordan and Nancy from “Oliver!” seem positively progressive.
The second thread introduced early in the show is Kahlo’s relationship with death, as personified by dancer Abbie Lessaris. It stands to reason that a woman stricken with polio as a child and the victim of a terrible bus accident would see death as an omnipresent companion. The conceit is often successful visually and is well worth fully developing. But a character who sings that “Life is hell” and “I’m painting my sorrow/The blood on my brush is the pain” grows tiring quickly. Without growth—or an interesting set of supporting characters—her anguish becomes tiring.
There are plenty of incidents from her life included—although surprisingly little focus on her actual painting (we see more of Rivera in action). The production team—there are actually a few involved besides Hancock—smartly keeps the stage open, usually leaving evocative lighting, colorful costumes, and Kahlo-esque paintings as a backdrops to set the mood for each sequence. The full-bodied music—robust in a manner that should be familiar to those who have heard the songs selected for Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre productions—trumps the redundant lyrics.
Clearly, though, there’s plenty of room to trim should the goal be to take it beyond the Tarkington. An interminable, out-of-place wannabe “New York, New York”/ “NYC”—complete with applause-baiting kickline—would be an easy place to start. An unnecessary coda that puts the emphasis on the wrong character following a potential lovely ending is another. For that matter, just about every song overstays its welcome by a chorus or so. There’s far too much time spent telling rather than showing. And when they aren’t telling, these sketched characters are often standing around with little to do.
But that’s all potentially fixable. Talent, vision, and drive—and Hancock clearly has all three—are key in creating a musical. What it needs now is a developmental process to turn an overcrowded mixed-bag of a gallery into a singular, compelling work.