The Arden Theatre Company concludes its season with the world premiere of Michael Ogborn’s fascinating but flawed Tulipomania: The Musical.
The show’s roots go all the way back to 2005, when it became the first musical commissioned by the Arden. After seven years of readings, rewrites and revisions, Tulipomania is still not fully grown.
Set in an Amsterdam hash bar that serves exotic reefer and bold espresso, Tulipomania attempts to tell two stories at once. The first is a present situation in which the shop’s friendly owner (Jeff Coon) and waiter (the flamboyant Billy Bustamante) are entertaining four customers. The two women (Joliet F. Harris and Alex Keiper) are American tourists in town for a conference. Also present are two regulars, a middle-aged businessman (Adam Heller) and an artist (Ben Dibble), who are leaving that night on the train for Belgium. As they enjoy their weed, the owner regales them with “a tale of insatiable greed and gardening.” It’s the story of the Dutch tulip craze of 1636. The first recorded financial bubble in history, the main character in the owner’s cautionary tale is a tulip dealer who “had everything he needed but none of what he wanted.”
Although the original inspiration for Tulipomania was the dot-com bubble, the parallels between the 17th-century tulip craze and the recent subprime mortgage crisis are forcefully conveyed in director Terrence J. Nolen’s staged production.
Featuring an abundance of theatrical flair, the owner, waiter and eventually the customers use a variety of found objects in the bar (paper towels, chalkboards, etc.) to re-enact the tragic story of a man who risks everything to attain the rare and wondrous tulip Semper Augustus. Scenic designer James Kronzer’s cozy, two-story establishment provides a setting that is both functional and charmingly atmospheric, yet Tulipomania is repeatedly plagued by a weak book and a score that is pleasant but unmemorable.
Ogborn adroitly draws parallels comparisons between Holland’s tulip bubble and the current subprime mortgage crisis. However, while the ideas in Tulipomania have relevance, we struggle to make a connection with the poorly defined characters. Compounding the problem is that the cast’s most gifted vocalist, Harris, is limited to one song. The majority of the songs are performed by Coon (who is excellent) and Heller, who is a fine actor, but an average singer.
Through July 1. $29-$45. Arden Theatre Company, F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9