Gauguin–The Musical, at the Chopin Theatre. Grant Robbin has written pleasant melodies for this world-premiere musical, but his lyrics are relentlessly pedestrian. Moreover he lacks the dramatic skill to depict Gauguin both honestly and sympathetically. Instead of showing the conflict between family and art, Robbin simply announces it at the beginning and spends the rest of the play repeating it. Matthew Shepard, who has a marvelous voice and an appealing persona, never gets to create a character of the artist.
Unless we see how Sunday painting comes to dominate Gauguin’s life, his choices seem not just selfish but deluded; it’s cheating to rely on his eventual success. And when Gauguin’s stay in Tahiti is disrupted by racist missionaries and this self-absorbed man invests his dying energy defending native culture, it may be historically accurate–he enjoyed defying authority–but the audience has been given no basis for believing it. Gauguin’s own fantasies about “the primitive” are never pursued. (By contrast, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Pacific Overtures takes seriously the culture clash between colonizer and colonized.)
Director Clayton Phillips manages the ensemble competently but should have trimmed the show to less than two hours. Hiring a choreographer would have been good too. Music director Linda Dowdell elicits exceptional vocals from ensemble members Kara Delay and William King. A song making fun of critics may have been intended to inoculate the show against criticism. Sorry.