A Review of Arden Theatre Company’s Tulipomania: The Musical

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Jeff Coon as Owner in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Jeff Coon as Owner in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.

This week, “Tulipomania: The Musical” opened at the Arden Theatre Company here in Philly. If you’re scratching your head because the title is unfamiliar to you, that’s no doubt because this production at the Arden is its world premiere! But don’t let the fact that it is new and unfamiliar deter you, because you’d be missing out on a damned entertaining new musical.

Created by Michael Ogborn and directed by the Arden’s esteemed Terrence J. Nolen, Tulipomania: The Musical gives us a glimpse into the Tulip mania of 1636 (the “first recorded financial bubble”), via a retelling of the tale by the owner of a hash bar in Amsterdam.

But before I talk about the show and the cast, I need to spend a moment praising the unbelievable set designer, James Kronzer. When I saw Cyrano at the Arden earlier this season, I was so impressed with its majestic two-story set. But the one Kronzer has created for Tulipomania is even more incredible. When you walk into the theater, you feel like you are stepping right inside this bar. The main bar is below, and upstairs is a ‘deck’ where the musicians play. There is so much detail, from the bathroom wall, to the knickknacks on the bar shelves, to the little handwritten signs in Dutch and English – this is set design at its finest. I dare say, I’ve seen Broadway sets that aren’t nearly as impressive as this.

Billy Bustamante as Waiter and Alex Keiper as Young Woman in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Billy Bustamante as Waiter and Alex Keiper as Young Woman in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Now, back to the show itself! One of the many brilliant decisions made in the production of this musical is in the casting. Jeff Coon, who is a well known and much beloved talent in the Philadelphia-area, plays the hash bar owner, and one of the primary storytellers of the show. Coon is one of the actors I keep track of, because I will see anything he is in, and so should you. When I found out he’d been cast in Tulipomania, I planned to see it regardless of what it was about. As always, he delivered an inspired performance. If you go for no other reason, go see Tulipomania for Jeff Coon.

The rest of the cast delivered equally brilliant performances. Billy Bustamante, who plays the hash bar’s waiter, reminded me of Rent’s Wilson Jermaine Heredia. He has so much spunk, energy, and charisma! Joilet F. Harris and Alex Keiper were great together as the American tourists who happen upon the bar, and get involved in the storytelling themselves. Ben Dibble plays a painter that does work for the bar, who really gets to shine in the last half of the show. And finally, there’s Adam Heller, who starts off as this quite gentleman who just wants to smoke his pot, and ends up playing such a profound and heartbreaking role in the story.

“But what about the music?” you might ask. “It is a musical after all.”

Yes, the music. Michael Ogborn, who created the book, music, and lyrics for Tulipomania, has put together some damn catchy numbers. I’ve actually had “Tavern Scene I” stuck in my head since I saw the show last night. The song describes the introduction of a ‘new whore’ to the Tulip bulb auctions:

“EVERYONE’S MAKING MONEY
WE’RE UNBELIEVABLY INEBRIATED.
AND EVERYONE THINKS IT’S FUNNY,
THERE’S SO MUCH TO BE MADE.”

Trust me when I say you’ll be singing that in your head for hours afterward. It is a glorious and memorable show stopper – one of several. But it’s not always jazzy and boisterous. As with the tulip mania in the 1600s, the craze can’t last forever, and these characters must face the inevitable crash. Ogborn brilliantly moves back and forth between the historical story being told, and the real lives of the people of the hash bar. We get little glimpses of their passions and their pain, culminating in a significant emotional release for two of the characters.

Seated, L-R: Alex Keiper as Young Woman and Joilet F. Harris as Woman; Standing, L-R: Billy Bustamante as Waiter, Ben Dibble as Painter, and Adam Heller as Man in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Seated, L-R: Alex Keiper as Young Woman and Joilet F. Harris as Woman; Standing, L-R: Billy Bustamante as Waiter, Ben Dibble as Painter, and Adam Heller as Man in Arden Theatre Company's production of Tulipomania: the Musical. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Go take a chance on this wonderful world premiere musical! You won’t regret it!

Tulipomania: The Musical runs now through Sunday, July 1, 2012. Single ticket prices are $29- $45, with discounts available for seniors, groups of 10+, students, military and educators. Call the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, order online at www.ardentheatre.org, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.

The Arden is wheelchair accessible and provides assisted listening devices and large-print programs at every performance. Open Captioned and Audio Described performances will take place on Friday, June 15 at 8pm and Saturday, June 16 at 2pm. Reservations are required for accessible seating and may be made by calling the Arden’s Box Office at 215-922-1122.

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