Monday, July 30, 2018

Spaces to Fill In: Lempicka

Eden Espinosa as Tamara de Lempicka. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The new musical about the life and career of the painter Tamara de Lempicka at Williamstown opens with a huge reproduction of one of her striking Art Deco canvases, a portrait of a woman whose imperious gaze assaults you while she remains aloof and impenetrable. Lempicka is about how the artist – who was born in Warsaw and moved first to St. Petersburg and then to Paris after she’d managed to get her aristocratic husband, Tadeusz Lempicki, released from prison during the Russian Revolution – became a celebrated figure in the art world between the World Wars, as famous for her the boldness and bravado of her personal life (she was openly bisexual) as for the take-no-prisoners froideur and forthrightness of her painting. But this painting is the only image by Lempicka that we see until the very end of the show, when her works fill the stage in a dramatic sweep. In between, whether we’re in her studio or at one of her shows, all we see are frames on easels.

And in fact Lempicka is pretty much an empty canvas. Riccardo Hernandez’s set consists of a broad cyclorama that covers the entire upstage area with small, spare pieces below it to indicate locations. Since the Williamstown mainstage is immense, the effect is unsatisfying, even clumsy, as if the musical had been planned for a much more compact venue and no one could come up with a plan for filling the space they were stuck in. Neither the director, Rachel Chavkin, nor the choreographer, Raja Feather Kelly, has figured out how to move the cast around effectively; they often seem clumped awkwardly together, the dancing has no distinctive style, and some of the scenes are real clunkers – like the one where two dancers wearing flesh-colored underwear, meant to suggest the Adam and Eve figures in one of the protagonist’s most famous paintings, follow Lempicka (Eden Espinosa) and Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) and her model-lover Rafaela (Carmen Cusack) around the stage, and the one where Fascist thugs smash up a lesbian nightclub and club the patrons.

Carson Kreitzer’s book consists of patches of dialogue between musical numbers (there’s one every five or ten minutes), so the songs themselves, with lyrics by Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, have to make most of the dramatic statements. But few of them have actual melodies; they’re mostly embroidery for tunes Gould hasn’t gotten around to devising. And since in the first act they tend to be in the same driving tempo you feel like you’re listening to endless reprises. Only in act two do we get a few ballads; one, “Stillness,” a duet for Espinosa and Cusack, is lovely. Everyone can sing, the three leads impressively, but there’s so much belting, even in the downbeat numbers, that it’s the equivalent of melodrama. Except for “Stillness,” there isn’t one song in which you can hear the performers acting their way through the lyric, playing the objectives; the music – probably more than the musical director, Charity Wicks – directs them to show off their technique instead. I was exhausted by intermission. (And it’s a long show – nearly three hours.)

Espinosa with Carmen Cusack. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

That’s a pity, because Espinosa, Cusack (whom I admired in the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical Bright Star) and Samonsky all demonstrate, in the spoken sections, that they’re very good actors, and Nathaniel Stampley as Lempicka’s patron and eventually her second husband, the Baron, and Rachel Tucker as his ailing wife bring a melancholy quality to their scenes that becalms the overly strenuous production. I wasn’t so wild about Steven Rattazzi as Lempicka’s friend, the Futurist painter Marinetti: he brings the same raucous, ironic quality to all his scenes. And, uncomfortably cast as Tamara and Tadeusz’s child, Kizette, Alexandra Templer makes awful little-kid faces. (It’s an impossible role, anyway, since whoever plays it has to age over the course of a couple of decades.)

The story line is full of incident, and the material, which is about bohemians, some of them artists, fighting for personal and artistic freedom against the oppression of fascism, has built-in contemporary significance – certainly enough that Kreitzer doesn’t have to keep pushing it at us the way she does. I assume that the punk haircuts worn by a couple of the women in the ensemble are meant to draw a line from Lampicka’s era to our own, but they’re merely confusing and distracting. The first act ends with a terrible song, a solo for Espinosa, that makes sure we understand that Lempicka is enshrining the essence of woman in her paintings. The more explicit and repetitive the dialogue and the lyrics are, the less convincing; every time the heroine explains that her love affair with Rafaela (a composite character Kreitzer has created) has caused her to see new colors and put them in her work, you feel you’re looking at museum captions in a show of Lempicka’s work at MOMA. The political stuff in the libretto is broad and expedient: Marinetti becomes a Fascist just in time to show up at the nightclub run by Lempicka and Rafaela’s lesbian buddy Suzy (Natalie Joy Johnson) when it’s attacked. It’s always tricky to layer historical material into a musical, since there isn’t much time to explain it, but if there’d been three or four fewer songs in the score the narrative might seem less abrupt. It would have been nice to see a show that’s more than just contours.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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