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'Magical Realism': Guy Forsyth stars as Vincent Van Gogh in 'Sunflower: The Musical'

Sunflower: The Musical, a new work by Laura Guli and Premila Mistry, is onstage now at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater. The musical centers around “a middle school girl named Amalie who moves to a new school and starts getting bullied,” says director Deanna Belardinelli. “One night, she touches a poster in her room that is of the Café Terrace at Night – which is one of Van Gogh’s paintings – and is suddenly pulled into the painting and meets Van Gogh, and is in this beautiful, magical world where all of these people have magic and paint and art in their lives. And he kind of shows her that it’s okay to be different, to kind of believe in herself.”

Singer-songwriter Guy Forsyth stars as Vincent Van Gogh, an artist he’s admired since hearing Don McLean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ as a kid. “Vincent Van Gogh represents perhaps the best misunderstood character… in the public record of western civilization,” he says. “He is a great example of someone who, during his lifetime, everybody looked at like he was insane. But it stands up over time, because now we can look at his work, his Impressionist work with color, and it’s everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere! As a character, he’s a great way to talk about the feelings of alienation that kids can have when they’re just not understood by those around them. Which, I don’t know about you, but that was my experience as a kid. And as a father now, I’ve got two daughters and they are going through similar things. So I think this particular work is a great way to talk about things that are really mattering right now.”

The real Van Gogh, of course, was a complicated figure, and aspects of his life and death might not seem like an easy fit for a theater piece designed for young people. But that’s part of what makes Sunflower work, Forsyth says. “One of the significant things about Sunflower is that it does deal with the death of Van Gogh,” he says. “Which is a hard subject to talk about in kids’ theater. But it’s exactly where the work needs to be done right now, because if you’re paying attention, the amount of kids who are dealing with issues like this is going up and up and up. So how do we address these things? I think this is exactly how we need to address them, using magical realism as a way to talk about difficult subjects and being able to introduce them to kids in a way that is not terrifying.”

“It deals with his death, but it also kind of showcases Amalie’s struggle with her depression and her anxiety,” Belardinelli says. “And how all of these thoughts and intrusive things can kind of coalesce into a moment, and then what do you do in that moment? Do you choose one way or do you choose the other way? So this show kind of allows kids to see that happen in a safe space, essentially.”

“What’s interesting about this show,” Forsyth adds, “is that the two women who wrote it both have hands-on experience dealing with the problem. Lauri Guli wrote the book, she wrote the story… and [Premila] Mistry wrote the music. So we’ve got a therapist and a middle school music teacher. And so they see it play out and have watched it play out for years. And so they conceptualized this musical as a way to introduce the skillset that they’re trying to teach and wrap it in something that matters to them, which is the story of Vincent Van Gogh and kids in school. It is so much a labor of love – they’re trying to share what they love in a way that can hopefully reach the people who need it the most.”

'Sunflower: The Musical' runs through August 14 at Austin's Scottish Rite Theater.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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