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Lempicka

Don’t blame the hardworking cast who make the most of paper thin characterizations.

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Eden Espinosa as artist Tamara de Lempicka and the cast of the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

While watching the new musical Lempicka which depicts the rise and fall of the Polish Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, you wonder why she is always shown working on empty frames without canvases. The answer becomes clear in the final minutes of the show. The last scene includes a retrospective mounted in the 1970’s supposedly when she was rediscovered after years in eclipse: the problem is that the models in the paintings look nothing like the cast on stage. As a result we learn hardly anything about her style or design for which she is famous. Don’t blame the hardworking cast who make the most of paper thin characterizations. It is just that they simply can’t stand next to their portraits and make us believe that we are seeing the models Tamara used.

Written by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, from an original concept by Kreitzer, the show’s book feels like it was written by a committee with transitions missing and characters disappearing for long periods of time. Besides this, so much of the true story has been changed that the chronology makes little sense. In fact, what really happened seems so much more interesting than what is on stage of the Longacre Theatre. Lempicka which is never boring is one of those shows with an interesting premise which should have been so much better in its execution.

Amber Iman as model Rafaela and Eden Espinosa as artist Tamara de Lempicka in a scene from the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Beginning in Los Angeles in 1975 where refugee Tamara ended up escaping the Nazis during World War II, Lempicka is played as a flashback showing us how she got there. Living in Tsarist St. Petersburg, Tamara marries Polish aristocrat and lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki. When he is arrested during the Russian Revolution, she gets him out at the price of her virtue. Fleeing to Paris, they find they are out of money but Tadeusz is too proud to work. Deciding to become a painter, Tamara studies with provocative Italian futurist Marinetti. (In fact, she never studied with him but with Maurice Denis and Andre Lhoté.)

She has troubles being accepted in a man’s profession until she meets model/prostitute Rafaela who becomes her lover. Her inspired paintings of Rafaela make her famous while her marriage to Tadeusz (who never liked her working) falls apart. When World War II begins, Rafaela refuses to leave Paris and Tamara takes up with one of her patrons, Baron Kuffner and they flee first to New York and then to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Tamara cannot find commissions in California and her career comes to an end.

George Abud as futurist artist Marinetti in a scene from the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Some of the changes to the facts were probably intended for dramatic intent. As she left Paris in 1939, she never saw any Nazis there, nor would Marinetti have worn a fascist uniform at that time. Like many biographical dramatizations of the rich and famous, Rafaela is a composite of many women that Tamara knew as she eventually was linked with many partners. The musical is very coy about telling the truth about their friend lesbian singer and nightclub owner Suzy Solidor who fraternized with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris after Tamara had left for the United States. The fact that Tamara married Baron Kuffner after the death of his first wife is accurate but it was much earlier than the musical implies.

Cian McCarthy’s orchestrations for Gould’s music rely so much on keyboard and acoustic and electric bass that is difficult to hear the score as music. The lyrics by Kreitzer are prosaic and prosy, extremely repetitious and filled with clichés. There are many false rhymes (luxury/hungry; pretty/marry; form/room; fruit/truth; sky/ eyes) and refrains repeated as often as four times in one stanza. Many of the song titles are reminiscent of other better songs with the same titles (“Our Time” was previously used by Stephen Sondheim in Merrily We Roll Along playing just down the block) or suggest much greater composers: “Pari Will Always be Pari” reminds us of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” and Frederick Loewe’s “Paris Is Paris Again” which are more memorable. The best song is “Just This Way,” the eleven o’clock number sung by one of the least important characters Baroness Kuffner, but as performed by Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, the most experienced member of the cast, the song is a show-stopper.

Eden Espinosa as artist Tamara and Andrew Samonsky as her husband Tadeusz Lempicki in a scene from the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The cast is hampered by the writing of their roles either as they are fictitious or not much is known about them. In the title role, Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through the Williamstown Theatre Festival and La Jolla Playhouse workshops is rather one dimensional, having been given little to work with. However, she is always elegant and stylish, often overcoming strange costumes that are not flattering. Aside from the fact that we do not see the pictures she is supposed to be painting, her few pronouncements on art (“plane, lines, form” and “Never let them see your Brushstrokes”) are already truisms and famous elsewhere. As her husband Tadeusz Lempicki, Andrew Samonsky is so bland that we do not see what she sees in him. However, he remains consistently snobbish, arrogant and demanding throughout.

Ironically, the minor characters who are mostly invented are the most interesting. George Abud as Italian futurist artist (Filippo Tommaso) Marinetti has so much fire that he always sets the stage ablaze in his few short appearances. As her model and lover Rafaela, Amber Iman is both a woman of mystery and a liberated woman long before this was standard – at least according to the musical. As the wife of Tamara’s major patron, Leavel as Baroness Kuffner is sardonic, haughty and patrician, giving the show a sense of class. Natalie Joy Johnson as singer Suzy Solidor exhibits the irony and sharpness that many of the other characters lack.

Beth Leavel as The Baroness Kuffner in a scene from the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Talented and brilliant director Rachel Chavkin keeps the show moving swiftly but seems to be defeated by many of the script’s false notes. In attempting to mirror the modern art aspects in his dances, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly has his ensemble look extremely mechanized as if inspired by the paintings of Fernand Léger rather than Tamara de Lempicka. Futurist painter Marinetti does often talk of machines as a necessary influence in art. The marcelled hairstyles by Leah H. Loukas also give the show an industrial look.

The unit set by Riccardo Hernández uses a great deal of steel girders to suggest the base of the Eiffel Tower but ends up rather unattractive. Bradley King’s lighting design often outlines the girders in light strips of blue, purple and red which are distracting rather than atmospheric. However, the scrim at the back of the stage effectively changes color with the mood of each scene. In an attempt to suggest Art Deco and Futurism, Paloma Young’s costumes often leave us scratching our heads as to what era we are in throughout the evening. Peter Nigrini’s documentary footage projected in pieces on either side of the stage is usually more effective at creating historical verisimilitude than what is center stage.

Natalie Joy Johnson as nightclub owner Suzy Solidor (far left) in a scene from the new musical “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

In telling the life story of Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins with a fascinating premise. Unfortunately, neither the score nor the book lives up to her high standards. Unlike Sunday in the Park with George which showed us the workings of the artistic process, Lempicka is more interested in the social aspects of the 1920’s and 1930’s Paris than in Tamara’s revolutionary paintings. The cast works hard to put over the new musical but they are defeated by commonplace situations, banal song lyrics, and over-used pronouncements. The musical of Tamara de Lempicka’s life still has to be told.

Lempicka (through May 19, 2024)

Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lempickamusical.com

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

1 Comment on Lempicka

  1. Another white dude complaining about a show that doesn’t center white dudes. As Marinetti says in the show – YAWN. Unsure why you complain that it doesn’t focus on the art and focuses on the social scene – um, YOU actually didn’t write it so they focused on what THEY wanted to focus on and not what you personally thought it should be focused on. Perhaps the fact that it’s a story centering queer women that also talks about fascism and therefore might be relevant today escaped you. And everyone knows it’s a fictionallzed version of her life. I didn’t realize that being 100% historically accurate was required for something to be a good musical. I imagine you’re thrilled that it’s closing and therefore won’t be there to disturb you with its joy and originality. Can’t wait to see your review of Death Becomes Her or Smash because we all know that no one ACTUALLY wants an original musical. Glad I read this so I will never have to read your dry stuffy painful prose again.

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