Painting a sketchy picture

La Vie en Bleu is an ambitious and bold new musical that opens the Walnut Street Theatre’s season. This American premiere of a French musical takes us on a journey from Pablo Picasso’s arrival in Paris at the turn of the century through the creation of his anguished masterpiece Guernica, devoted to the victims of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War.

The show is as distinctive as Picasso’s art itself. With a romantic score, the Walnut stage becomes a beautiful canvas in which a portrait of the legendary Picasso is painted.

Most modern musicals contain a total of 18 songs. This bold endeavor has 21 songs in the first act alone and 12 more in the second. With a colorful Parisian and Spanish flavor, the show follows Picasso from his early years as an artist in a bohemian Paris through his renowned innovative periods.

Along the way, Picasso befriends such noted figures as Gertrude Stein, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev, and romances ravishing women who willingly become his models, muses and mistresses.

The English-language adaptation by Bruce Lumpkin and Bill Van Horn has a serviceable book with swift staging, but the approach raises the question of whether the entire story of Picasso can be rendered in two-and-a-half hours with any degree of depth. The answer here is no. The result is that the artist’s life is reduced to a simple equation: Artist leaves woman, then changes styles.

Picasso’s style developed from the Blue Period in 1901 to the Rose Period (1905) to the pivotal work Les Demoiselles d’Avignoii (1907), and the evolution of Cubism in 1908. His collaboration on ballet and theatrical costumes began in 1916, followed by a renewed interest in drawing and figural representation.

From 1925 to the 1930s, he was involved with the Surrealists, and in 1931 became interested in making sculpture. In the late 1940s, Picasso moved to the south of France and eventually to Mougins. He continued to work in painting, drawing, prints, ceramics and sculpture until his death on April 8, 1973.

The popular and engaging Philadelphia actor Jeffrey Coon plays the lead role of Picasso. The role is challenging and exhausting with its frenetic exuberance and despair, and Coon does it with flair.

The show’s best songs deal with love and rejection. Jessica Boevers, remembered for her role as Eliza in the Walnut’s My Fair Lady, is a poignant Eva, succumbing to Picasso’s fatal touch. Joan Hess as Fernande Olivier and Rebecca Robbins as Olga Koklova, the Russian dancer who married Picasso, also effectively underline the emotional wreckage the artist visited on women.

Picasso’s Spanish pal, Carlos Casegamus, whose tragic suicide ushered in the Blue Period, is nicely performed by Ben Dibble. Someone for Me is a special musical moment, sung by the talented Denise Whelan as the Moulin Rouge showgirl who precipitated the suicide. Doubling as Gertrude Stein, Whelan is distinctively notable throughout the show.

La Vie en Bleu never attempts to plow the depths of its subjects or even mirror their complexity in its rather ordinary score. Entertaining as it is, it remains superficial in almost every respect.

Choreographer Richard Stafford and director Bruce Lumpkin represent Picasso’s evolution from the Blue to Rose Period to cubism to expressionism with imaginative staging and choreography. But the lyrics in the ensemble numbers could not be easily understood.

Musical director and dance arranger Faser Hardin, whose Broadway credits include A Chorus Line and Edwin Drood, does remarkably fine work here.

La Vie en Bleu
Walnut Street Theatre
825 Walnut St.
Through Oct. 19
Tickets: $10-$60