Bluefinger on Broadway?
Catastrophic Theatre's magnificent world-premiere production of Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood, written and directed by Jason Nodler, and featuring a blistering performance by Matt Kelly in the title role, could easily be the next smash hit on Broadway. Such crass commercialization may not be the goal for Houston's edgy troupe, but really, why not Broadway? There's always room for a heady, adults-only musical filled with sex, drugs and rock and roll. Remember Hair? Even now, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson proves that dysfunctional celebrity, when given a rock beat, can be a potent subject for musical treatment.
Bluefinger's got dysfunction in spades since it's based on the life of Dutch musician/painter Herman Brood, a walking — when he could manage — billboard of how not to live your life. He was, and still is, revered as a demigod in the Netherlands, that country's one true rock star, a lethal combination of Cobain, Morrison and other egotistical fuckups. The worst of all possible role models, he attained mythic status after his suicide when, at age 54, he threw himself off the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton (the same hotel where John and Yoko in 1969 staged their "bed-in" for world peace).
Brood loved music and, later, painting, but he only felt alive when he stuck a syringe in his arm, or was drunk, or having sex — usually at the same time. When he died in 2001 while his work was having a resurgence, his body was in complete meltdown. When the dope quit having an effect, he knew it was time to go.
Apart from his wildly dark music and acid-colored paintings (which are projected as an end-credit roll), he's not much of a man to admire. But he's mighty seductive — and it's to Bluefinger and Kelly's great credit that we fall under his anarchic spell. Not that Brood cared what anybody thought. That's what makes this out-of-control rebel so damned attractive. He did exactly what he wanted, lived by his own rules and when his wayward choices rendered him incontinent and addled, he got out quick.
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If he were art, he'd be a Bosch or a Francis Bacon, something apocalyptic and hellish. But we never plow into Brood too deeply. That's the only buzz-kill in this cleverly structured and expressionistically written show. He's fucked up when we meet him as a young musician being thrown out of an Amsterdam club — having gotten a blow job in the toilet and shot up, simultaneously — and he remains, regardless of his immense musical talent, an unrepentant screw-up throughout. If there's a moral center to be found in this hedonistic portrait, if only by default, it's Koos, Brood's childhood friend and exasperated agent. Adroitly played by Troy Schulze, Koos is the ultimate enabler, assisting in the debaucheries because he's too cowed by Brood's talent to stop him.
Though the work is not strictly chronological, Jason Nodler embroiders all the highpoints (or low points, if you will) of Brood's untamed life, helping us with background projections of dates and place names. Like a dream rush, Brood comes at us in oblique little scenes, with music the binding tie. Inspired by Charles Thompson's 2007 concept album about Brood, Bluefinger, Nodler flies off in truly exceptional riffs. He uses songs composed by Thompson (a.k.a. the Pixies' Black Francis), like "Angels Come to Comfort You" and "Your Mouth into Mine," as exposition, and Brood's iconographic songs, like "Rock and Roll Junkie," "Saturday Night" and "Love You Like I Love Myself," as ironic commentary. Combined with Anthony Barilla's roiling arrangements, it's a potent mix. And it's performed by two bands, separated on either side of the stage, wailing and howling like the true heavy metal rockers they are. Michael Haaga, a Houston underground club star in his own right, plays and sings as Black Francis, and his forceful presence adds to the show's authenticity.
There's a quirky little scene when Brood is forced to paint houses for a living after his disastrous American tour. Mikelle Johnson, who plays Brood's tempestuous wife Xandra (a character who gets short-sheeted in the play), shows up in Dutchman's cap with comic broom mustache and cartoon voice. The two banter about the color the house is to be painted. Suddenly, through this delightfully odd interchange, we realize why Brood, nonjudgmental and childlike, is so beloved by his countrymen.
His childhood is impressionistically sketched with only a few sentences, and his courtship of Xandra strikes just the off note of stoned-out romance and indifference when the baby drops from the ceiling into Mom's waiting arms. These miniatures are like something painted by Magritte: charming, colorful, just right. Throughout, the staging is effectively simple, with Kirk Markley's layered rooftops bathed in Kevin Holden's hallucinogenic lighting.
As author and director, Nodler rejuvenates this tortured artist, but it's Matt Kelly, as Herman Brood, who dissects him with a medical precision that takes our breath away. His performance is overpoweringly physical, and, without question, absolutely star-making. You can't take your eyes off him. He starts off already thin, but gets reedier as he deteriorates, until he's shuffling and half-blind. He seems to lose half his weight and height. As a singer he possesses all the incandescent wattage of any rock star. Brood's signature "Saturday Night" and other songs explode under Kelly's immolating touch. He tears the roof off DiverseWorks.
Bluefinger is a once-in-a-lifetime, invigorating magical mystery tour of rock's most quintessential wild man. Catastrophic Theatre has outdone itself. How could it not, with such a glorious triptych of talented iconoclasts — Herman Brood, Matt Kelly and Jason Nodler — singing their hearts out?
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