by Clark Groome
In 1636 Holland exhibited a passion for tulips that, for a while at least, drove its economy to extraordinary heights. Then the bottom fell out of the market. That improbable but true story and its parallels in the dot.com world and the subprime mortgage crisis of the early part of this century are the inspiration for composer/lyricist/author Michael Ogborn’s latest musical, “Tulipomania,” which is getting its world premiere production at the Arden Theatre through July 1.
It is, in almost equal measures, fascinating and frustrating. In order to give the show some relevance — and, perhaps, some general appeal — Ogborn, who grew up in Laverock, has set the play in a modern-day Amsterdam hash house. The play’s six main characters are in the café to stay out of the rain and toke on joints of different varieties of pot. While there, they hear and act out the story of the tulip mania that took place almost four centuries earlier.
Ogborn’s show, which Arden commissioned, follows on that theater’s premiere productions of two of his previous efforts: “Café Puttanesca” and the extraordinary “Baby Case,” a Barrymore Award-winning musical about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
“Tulipomania” is an almost perfect example of how a great production can almost, but not quite, overcome a problematic book. In this case the book — at least for the first two-thirds of its 95 minutes — is really confusing. It’s hard to tell what’s happening now and what happened during the tulip mania period. To some degree that’s likely Ogborn’s point. Still, it’s often very hard to follow.
Director Terrence J. Nolen’s production, on the other hand, is impressively creative, beautifully designed and flawlessly performed.
First and foremost is Nolen’s cast: Billy Bustamante (Waiter), Jeffrey Coon (Owner), Ben Dibble (Painter), Germantown’s Joilet F. Harris (Woman), Adam Heller (Man) and Alex Keiper (Young Woman) are the six central characters. Madalyn Czerniak (Daughter) appears briefly during the show’s final minutes.
Their acting is superb. So is their singing of Ogborn’s varied and very pleasant score. Individually each is terrific. Together they make this as good an ensemble as I’ve seen in ages.
The physical production — designed by James Kronzer (set), Rosemarie E. McKelvey (costumes), John Stephen Hoey (lighting) and Jorge Cousineau (sound) — is impressive and totally appropriate. Music director Dan Kazemi and his six-piece orchestra are excellent. In fact, everything about the production is first rate. It makes what is a very difficult and puzzling show a treat to watch and listen to.
For tickets to the Arden Theatre’s world premiere production of Michael Ogborn’s “Tulipomania,” playing through July 1, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org