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The Boy Who Listened to Paintings

A musical memoir of a man who grew up with synesthesia and how that impacted his life from childhood through his early teens.

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Alyson Reim Friedman, Thom Brown III, Niko Zylik as young Nicky, Donovan Counts, Alisa Ermolaev and William Broderick in a scene from the new musical “The Boy Who Listened to Paintings” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Scotty Bennett

Scotty Bennett, Critic

Imagine, if you will, that a painting in a museum made you hear music in response to the colors. These are not discordant but harmoniously blended sounds flowing like the colors you see. What a fantastic experience that might be. Some people see things in such a way because of how brains process sensory information. The condition is called synesthesia, and some form of it affects 3% to 5% of the people in the world. They are called synesthetes.

“The Boy Who Listened to Paintings” is a musical based on the life of the late Dean Kostos, a visual artist, poet, and synesthete. The book and lyrics are by Dean Kostos and Paul Kirby, with music by Kirby. Lissa Moira directs the show. It is a musical memoir of a man who grew up with synesthesia and how that impacted his life from childhood through his early teens.

Patrick Kenner, Niko Zylik, Louisa Bradshaw and Matthew James Fitzgerald as the Thanos family in in a scene from the new musical “The Boy Who Listened to Paintings” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

The show doesn’t work as a play or a musical for various reasons, the two most prominent being forgettable lyrics and a lack of a well-constructed story arc. It is trying to do too much without creating a firmly focused central theme with solid character development. It is more sketches of moments in the playwright’s life than a fully realized depiction. It is a disappointment that a show created by the author of a beautifully written memoir of the same name could not produce a show at the same level.

The story centers on Nick Thanos, skillfully played and sung by Michael A. Green, with the best performance of the evening. Nick is telling the story of his life, or rather his life from when he was seven until age 16. He is the guide, introducing characters and situations and filling in gaps in the storyline to connect scenes. His performance of “It’s Gonna Get Better” is the best musical production of the show.

Young Nicky (Niko Zylik) thrives in art class in a scene from the new musical “The Boy Who Listened to Paintings” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Two actors, brothers Luka and Niko Zylik, play Nick from 7 to 12. I saw Niko the night I attended, and he was solid in his portrayal and made a reasonable effort with singing most of the songs in the first act, solo or with other cast members. However, at times, his voice was not strong enough to be heard over the piano accompaniment. Milo Longenecker is Nicky from 13 to 16. He is believable playing a teenager, but the performance is uneven.

Half the cast plays multiple characters, with performances ranging from amateurish to polished, with some being solid in one scene and uneven in the next. It is always tricky casting actors who play characters of different ages. It does not work to have an actor who looks to be in his late twenties playing someone who is supposed to be ten, as happens in this show. Although the cast worked hard at delivering the lyrics, the singing was all over the place: pitchy, off-key, too loud, too soft, and with few being done well. The choreography is only marginally better.

Michael A. Green as the adult Nick Thanos, the narrator, in a scene from “The Boy Listened to Paintings” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Peter Dizozza, the music director and pianist, is solid in his playing. Still, the piano’s location, upfront near the audience, was too loud for some of the lyrics to be heard. The songs are acceptable but lack solid development. Kirby’s music is more like incidental filler than fully developed works that are well integrated into the story.

The sets are more sketches of different settings than developed pieces. Projections on the upstage wall with fully realized settings are an attempt to represent what the props on stage were meant to be. Alan Hanna’s efforts are well done, but it would have been better to put more effort into workable sets than to rely on projections.

Lissa Moira as Peggy and Milo Longenecker as teenage Nicky in a scene from the new musical “The Boy Who Listened to Paintings” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Alexander Bartenieff’s lighting design works well to hold the scenic action together and to move the storyline. It is a difficult thing to accomplish, given the venue and staging. The costume design by Billy Little is also successful in helping define the characterizations.

The Boy Who Listened to Paintings (through February 18, 2024)

Theater for the New City

Johnson Theater, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

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Scotty Bennett
About Scotty Bennett (61 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

1 Comment on The Boy Who Listened to Paintings

  1. The soft-pedal wasn’t working, those songs are jewels, come again.

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