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