Sunday, April 14, 2024

REVIEW: Lempicka

Review of the Saturday, April 13, 2024 matinee preview performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Starring Eden Espinosa, Amber Iman, Andrew Samonsky, George Abud, Natalie Joy Johnson, Zoe Glick, Nathaniel Stampley and Beth Leavel. Original concept by Carson Kreitzer. Music by Matt Gould. Lyrics by Carson Kreitzer. Book by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould. Orchestrations by Cian McCarthy. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Bradley King. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Sound design by Peter Hylenski and Justin Stasiw. Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly. Direction by Rachel Chavkin. 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Other than feeling excited to see every member of the principal cast, and feeling confident that the piece was in capable hands with director Rachel Chavkin, I went into the new musical Lempicka with a blank slate of expectations. Okay, some of the released video material had me excited - "Woman Is" is a stunning power ballad, and the montage of pro-shot numbers had me concerned that this would be another belt-your-face-off diva fest (it is, kinda) with some awkward campy-ness (definitely not the case). Fortunately, this is a mostly stunning examination of an ahead of her time artiste, with a beautifully realized message of empowerment. In short, this is one of the most fully integrated musicals I've seen in years, with some impressive performances and superior technical elements.

Book-ended by scenes that take place in 1975, where we are confronted by an aging, embittered Tamara de Lempicka (Eden Espinosa) lamenting her has-been status, even as she knows that she'll never see the recognition she deserves in her lifetime. What follows is a helpfully linear telling of her life story - helpful because there is a lot of content in 
Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould's book and lyrics. In this case that isn't a negative. One, she was a complicated woman who deserves every detail provided. And two, the sequential telling allows for some very creative ways of presenting time, events and themes; a feeling of watching a Wikipedia entry is fully and completely avoided. Clever, mysterious, and powerful, the words - spoken and sung - match exactly the subject of this bio-musical.

Their score is equally impressive in its variety and attention to time, place and character. A thrilling mix of Broadway arias, complex passage of time production numbers, and jazzy period numbers, the score is nearly devoid of excess. Nearly. There is one number ("Wake Up") that, while a good song and wonderfully performed by Andrew Samonsky, stopped the momentum of the otherwise tight show and added little to his character. Still, I can remember thinking that if Lempicka's artwork and style were music instead of paint, this score captures it perfectly, alternately smooth and flowing ("never let them see the brush strokes") and pulsing electronica (futuristic, severe minimalism).

Visually/technically the production elements similarly mirror the chronology of the story, the characters, and the art. Literally, every single part of Riccardo Hernandez's set is a representation of Lempicka's art deco triumphs. Lines and curves come and go, industrial and austere, even extending into the boxes which house the excellent orchestra. Similarly, both Paloma Young's costume and Bradley King's lighting designs employ both sharp lines and seamless flow of colors. Peter Nigrini's breathtaking projection design is a kaleidoscope of shapes and a seemingly endless array of methods to present the famous artwork of the show's subject. In its own way, this is an art show in all the best ways. It is, as one of the songs says, no simple bowl of fucking fruit.

This sense of art in motion also carries over into Chavkin's fluid, often striking, staging and Raja Feather Kelly's exciting choreography. Each scene is staged with the care and scope of a full play; each dance ebbs and flows like the brush to the canvas. Kelly employs a variety of styles - from ballet and jazz to vogue and mechanical stops - often within a single number. Not only does it match the moment, it, like the music, brings Lempicka's painting style into terms of movement. It is all so thrilling to absorb. It certainly helps that the company of ensemblists is such a unique blend of artists in their own right.

My pre-show excitement about the principal cast was not misplaced - to a person they were each excellent. Young Zoe Glick is a beguiling presence as Tamara's daughter - a cheeky mix of innocent naivete and surprising world wisdom. As the wealthy Baron, whose character has a surprising ending, Nathaniel Stampley has the least to work with, but offers a welcome feeling of calm strength in often chaotic moments. He also holds his own with the force of nature that is Beth Leavel. It's not too surprising that she makes a meal out of every morsel she is given, including the moving 11 o'clock number, "Just This Way." And speaking of forces of nature, Natalie Joy Johnson threatens to take the Longacre over completely and hold everyone in attendance in willing captivity. Here is a complicated woman who knows what she wants in a man's world and defies anything that gets in her way. She wears decadence like a badge of honor, and her excesses like a suit of armor. Rounding out the supporting cast is the enigmatic and irresistible George Abud, as the street smart, go-where-you-have-to-go-to-survive Marinetti. He is both hilarious and frightening (often simultaneously) as he scenery chews (in this case, a compliment) and insinuates himself into history.

Then there is the central love triangle involving Tamara's husband (Samonsky) and the subject of her bisexual awakening (the fierce Amber Iman), and Tamara de Lempicka herself (Espinosa). Mr. Samonsky manages to walk a fine line between pushover and self-aware, and even though his big act one number is really superfluous, he sings beautifully and is a welcome presence each time he appears. Meanwhile, Ms. Iman's character complexities show in her every step, gesture and piercing look. Strong and powerful, she also portrays an intriguing vulnerability; these qualities are what draws Tamara (and us) to her. Hers is an award-worthy performance - the complete package. 

As one might glean from even the title alone, the success of this piece rests heavily on the casting of the titular artist. It's hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of actor to role than Eden Espinosa as Tamara de Lempicka. Her presence is both larger than life and unexpectedly intimate. She navigates the complicated arc of her character with such ease and purpose, we are able to absorb all she has to offer worry-free. And what she has to offer is incredible. Sure she can belt out the arias, but she also handles the more character-driven song and scenes with aplomb and intensity. The years she's spent with the show have been worth all of the effort. She is excellent in all ways.

If I had to point out anything that is less than positive about the show, it isn't really about the show itself. In fact, they do this one thing way better than most, and has as much to do with timing as anything else. That thing is Nazis. Okay, the plot device of the rise of Hitler is a stark warning that we, as a society, are perilously close to history repeating itself. This season alone, there are three shows with this exact scenario. True, it is a very important part of human history, and is a part of the actual history of the people involved in two of these shows. But when the rise of fascism becomes a trope, it somehow loses its power to educate through entertainment. Again, let me stress that it is an important topic, and Lempicka handles it very well. But I know I'm not alone in thinking that I'm starting to get numb to it in Broadway musicals. 

Lempicka is a welcome, powerful addition to the canon of bio-musicals. 

📸: M. Murphy & E. Zimmerman


  1. Wow - a positive review for a show drowning in a tsunami of negative reviews, some brutal. Happy you enjoyed it.

  2. I saw the performance after the one you did, Saturday evening, and I have to say it was fabulous in all the ways you describe. Every song, every voice, moved the story forward and did so beautifully.


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