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Woman Is…What, Exactly? “Lempicka” reviewed

Midway through the new Broadway musical Lempicka, a female lover asks the titular heroine, Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka when they can live an open live together as a couple. Tamara (Espinosa) answers “when the world is not in flames,” to which the woman responds “when will that be?”

There isn’t an answer, and nearly a century after this fictionalized scenario broaches the question, we as a society aren’t necessarily closer to one. But the show, which just opened at the Longacre Theatre following years of development and tryout runs at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018 and La Jolla Playhouse last year, doesn’t pause long enough to mourn that notion, that a true love cannot simply be. Instead, Lempicka, in trying to fill the expected space of a Broadway bio-musical, hurtles along as it tries to squeeze in different eras of time, additional characters representing different schools of thought, artistry, and queerness, and historical moments. And it overcrowds the canvas.

Lempicka’s story, which spanned most of the 20th century and covers multiple continents, has plenty of drama to offer. (Lempicka was previously depicted on stage in the John Krizanc play Tamara, which had a five-year run beginning in 1987 at the Park Avenue Armory.) A Polish-Jewish aspiring painter summering in Russia, she wed aristocrat Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) when she was still a teenager, then saved him from the Bolsheviks at a damning expense. Tadeusz, stunned at the loss of his estates, refused to look for a job, leading his wife to work as a charwoman. But her artistic impulse returned when she spots a painter on the streets of Paris and fell under the influence of futurist Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti (George Abud). Under his aegis, Tamara’s portraits, which combine a sleek deco glamour with a chilly machine-age detachment, make her the toast of Paris.

Lempicka took advantage of the bohemian life in Paris, rising to artistic prominence while taking multiple lovers of both sexes. (“I live life in the margins of society,” she reportedly said. “And the rules of normal society don’t apply in the margins.”) But in the late 1930s, as the Nazi threat loomed, she was forced to flee again, this time to America, with a rich and titled new husband, where she spent most of her remaining four decades in cultural obscurity.

Yes, there is a wealth of high-stakes material to play with here. But the problem is that conceiver-librettist Carson Kreitzer, co-lyricist and composer Matt Gould, and director Rachel Chavkin don’t know how to properly shape the material. They adhere to some of Lempicka’s biographical details and jettisoned the truth with other, picking and choosing how they focus on the artist’s love life. It seems as if they decided their crucial concentration should be a triangle between Lempicka, Tadeusz, with whom she has an ill-defined marriage, and with Rafaela (a sultry Amber Iman, not given enough to do), a prostitute who Lempicka loves and who is the character quoted above. (Although Rafaela appears to be known to the artist’s biographers, she is likely not real but merely a composite of the women and men with whom the libertine Lempicka cavorted.)

This attempt at a love triangle doesn’t quite work – instead, the leads feel like chess pieces, with virtually no performer given any room to breathe. And the fictionalized account buries less petty historical truths. That Lempicka, ever the pragmatist, also carried on a long affair with the baron (Nathaniel Stampley), for years before he was widowed. Here, his wife (Beth Leavel) gets a terrific ten o’clock ballad expressly permitting the artist to marry the Baron after she died and explore new opportunities in America (which she did; they fled Paris and lived decades more in California). That fellow Parisian Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson, also making mincemeat of her role) used her club as a hideaway for her queer friends and thumbed her nose at the fascism growing all around her. (In truth, she collaborated with the Nazis.)

Technically, the show represents a compromised vision as well. Paloma Young’s costumes combine accurate period creations that make for nimble quick changes for the leads, but the ensemble’s costumes often look cheap, while Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography spans a bunch of different styles that often look rather jerky and modern. Riccardo Hernández’s multilevel set is serviceable.

In Lempicka, Chavkin is flying a spaceship that seems to be caught between two completely different planets: one a very radical one, the other a more conciliatory, varnished version of the Lempicka’s story. We can see the former in musical numbers like the Marinelli and Solidor sequences “Pari Will Always Be Pari,” “Perfection,” “and “Women.” (Peter Hylenski and Justin Stasiw control a solid sound design.) Otherwise, however, Gould’s music and Kreitzer’s pop-friendly lyrics offer an appealing contemporary Broadway pop sound that allows Espinosa to belt (the better to love her for – although the show’s feature players all get better, more revelatory numbers) that make the whole operation feel coquettish. Time and again, the show seems to want to dig deep into themes of queerness and sexuality, only to keep looking away.

Stop smoothing out the rough edges! I wish that this story could feel less rote. There are moments when a more avant garde sensibility peeks through, particularly when Marinetti or Suzy are onstage, and you can get a sense of the truly alternative persona the creative team wishes they could have employed throughout this show. Unfortunately, it’s hard – nay, impossible – for shows like that to exist with the current economics of a mainstreamed Great White Way. A show that didn’t shy away from complicated portraits of people who made gritty choices but still meet its running costs. When will the day come when that more electric, elucidating version of Lempicka can exist on Broadway? Sadly, I don’t know.

Longacre Theatre