In the musical The Highest Yellow, the title is Vincent van Gogh's description of a color so intense that it is "where I know no fear,/where I disappear."
Yet in this stunning musical - receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. - a young doctor is the character in greatest danger of losing himself, of disappearing.
With an intricate score by Broadway composer Michael John LaChiusa and an incisive libretto by Washington playwright John Strand, the musical focuses primarily on Dr. Felix Rey, the intern assigned to treat van Gogh in the hospital in Arles, France, where the artist is admitted after cutting off his ear.
The result is a show whose central theme is not the painter's artistic process; that theme was mastered in another musical about a post-Impressionist painter - Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. Instead, The Highest Yellow explores the intersection of insanity and creativity, and still more intriguingly, whether insanity might be contagious.
Under Eric Schaeffer's adroit direction, the production reinforces these challenging themes in various ways, beginning with designer Walt Spangler's set. With its white-tiled floor and series of white curtains, the set metaphorically places all the action within the walls of the Arles hospital - even scenes that take place in a wheat field, on a street outside a brothel, or in van Gogh's rented room.
The casting further blurs the line between the sick and the healthy by having supporting players portray both patients and medical personnel. In an example of designer Anne Kennedy's economical costuming, a patient simply places her shawl on her head and is instantly transformed into a wimpled nurse.
Dr. Rey, however, undergoes a longer, more wrenching transformation, affectingly conveyed by Jason Danieley, a handsome actor with an equally handsome voice. Rey is a cocky bourgeois who's so determined to leave provincial Arles for Paris that he's become cavalier about his hospital duties. Danieley's Rey isn't merely young, he's also immature, emotionally and experientially. And, as becomes increasingly clear, Rey is out of his depth.
In his very first scene with Marc Kudisch's imposing and impassioned van Gogh, Rey announces unequivocally, "I shall cure you," a statement he reiterates several more times.
"I don't want to be `cured,'" van Gogh replies. "I want to remain what I am."
The doctor can barely comprehend this, and he has only the vaguest idea what the painter means in the riveting title song, which ends with Kudisch repeatedly singing, "Let me disappear," in a falsetto so cutting, it's more like a cry - not for help, but for understanding.
Then Rey meets Rachel, the prostitute for whom van Gogh sliced off his ear. Rachel is also desperate to help van Gogh. And though Judy Kuhn plays her as a strong-willed, but unsophisticated woman, Rachel has a slightly better understanding of van Gogh's nature. As she explains in a moving duet with Rey: "You need the dark to make the light lighter,/You need the touch of madness to be sane."
By now, Rey is not only obsessed with his patient, he's identifying with him - identifying with a man whose psyche, and especially whose genius, are beyond the doctor's grasp. Rey's condition takes an even more destructive turn when he falls in love with Rachel, at one point paying her madam to let him secretly watch Rachel with the recently released van Gogh.
With jealousy coloring his obsession, Rey - not van Gogh - becomes dangerous. But if van Gogh's madness is infectious, his talent is not. "All artists are mad ... or they are nothing as artists," Rey's supervisor has told him. Van Gogh's madness may fuel his art, but for Rey, who lacks an artist's creative spark, madness fuels only madness.
In the final scene of The Highest Yellow, the interdependence between selfish Rey and selfless van Gogh has, heartbreakingly, hampered them both. It's a scene that would be stronger if van Gogh's final thoughts were sung, instead of stated in a letter. But this is one of the few shortcomings in a fascinating musical that sheds light on the ultimately unfathomable source of genius and the slippery slope into madness.
"Experience ... then feel ... then see," van Gogh tells Rey. That is precisely the journey the audience takes in this intelligent, absorbing new musical.
The Highest Yellow
Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 12
Call: 800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org