May 4 2011 12:00 AM

Opulent ’Vincent’ suffers from a lack of sparks between its stars


    Audiences may not recognize young Vincent
    Van Gogh from his later brooding, earless self-portraits. Based on true
    events, "Vincent in Brixton" by Nicholas Wright shows a giddy
    20-year-old Van Gogh discovering love and his greater artistic passions
    while briefly working in London.

    This coming-of-age story shares
    similarities with other sentimental biodramas based on the lives of
    iconic artists. The current production at Riverwalk Theatre, directed by
    Mary Job, touts strong production values in costume, lighting and a
    period perfect set. It also provides opportunities for fine performances
    from Riverwalk veterans and newcomers. 

    Set in 1873, "Vincent" begins with young
    Dutchman Van Gogh (J.C. Kibbey) finding lodging in Brixton while working
    as an artist in London. He is quickly transfixed by the landlady’s
    daughter, Eugenie Loyer (Amy Winchell), before falling for the landlady
    herself, Ursula Loyer (Laura Davis Stebbins). As a widow, Ursula learned
    to suppress her emotions when her husband died. The constant
    distraction of cleaning and cooking has not drained her heart, however,
    which she tentatively offers to the eager Vincent.

    But love like this cannot last. The
    show’s conclusion questions whether an artist can devote himself to
    another person when his entire being is focused on creating art. 

    As Vincent, Kibbey dons an impressively
    consistent Dutch accent. Unfortunately, the cathedral-like Riverwalk
    acoustics muddy much of his dialogue. The show’s first 20 minutes
    magnify the problem with tedious exposition and character introductions.
    Kibbey later compensates with comic facial expressions based on
    language and cultural mistranslations that at times liken him to the
    stock foreign exchange student in a raunchy college comedy.

    Without hints of depression or darker
    days to come, Kibbey’s Vincent is amusing and boyishly innocent —
    particularly in the first half — but with no real romantic motivations
    to match the script’s story arch. 

    Stebbins, on the other hand, effortlessly
    translates Kibbey’s smiles into seduction. She provides the necessary
    gravitas to propel her character from apathy to jubilant hope to
    irreconcilable grief. Her proper London accent also fares much better in
    the auditorium, piercing to the back rows. Stebbins appears to be
    responsible for kindling the few moments of real chemistry that appear
    just before and after the intermission, even though a fire never fully

    As Eugenie, Winchell provides strong
    support, transforming from a daughter in need of her mother’s protection
    to a daughter protecting her mother. Joseph Mull and Sarah Bence fill
    in the final supporting roles with distinct dialects but mostly
    unremarkable performances.

    Job’s own set design and Ted Daniel’s
    lighting and projection design are impressively detailed. From a
    cast-iron stove to painted wooden floors with projections of the
    cityscape and Van Gogh paintings, Daniels and Job create the perfect
    frame for the actor’s paint. Similarly, costume design and coordination
    by Susan Swenson and Skip Panek provide appropriate colors and textures
    to the characters who wear them.

    For more jaded viewers looking for
    "Starry Night" on stage, "Vincent in Brixton" relies too heavily on
    melodramatic devices and obvious twists to be fulfilling. For everyone
    else, the show is a worthwhile rendering of a post-impressionist painter
    through a post-Nicholas Sparks lens.

    ‘Vincent in Brixton’
    7 p.m. Thursday, May 5; 8 p.m. Friday, May 6, and Saturday, May 7; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8
    Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Dr., Lansing
    $10 adults for Thursday; $8 seniors, students and military personnel Thursday; $14 adults Friday, Saturday and Sunday; $12 seniors, students and military personnel Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
    (517) 482-5700