Review: 'Lempicka' Beautifully Painted at Williamstown Theatre Festival
For the first few minutes of "Lempicka," the stunning world premiere musical at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the music level was so assaulting, I wanted to wave a white flag of surrender as happened – perhaps apocryphally – during an early performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But very soon thereafter, either the music level was lowered, or I got used to it – and it was I who surrendered to this wonderful, beautifully realized musical. If you wear socks to "Lempicka," be prepared to have them knocked off.
The show is the story of a strong woman named Tamara de Lempicka (Eden Espinosa). She was an Art Deco painter who had two periods of success and fame: first when she was working in Paris in the period between World War I and World War II and then when she was "rediscovered" in the 1960s while she was living in California.
She was born in Poland but met and married her wealthy, prominent husband, Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky), also Polish, in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). During the Russian revolution, Lempicki was arrested. Tamara used her jewelry and her body to bribe his jailers and thereby bought his release. After her husband was freed, they fled to Paris. He didn't want to work and dragged his feet before taking a low-level job at a bank. Tamara, being a realist and survivor, started to paint for a living. Her work became very popular. She met and had a longtime affair with a bohemian prostitute, Rafaela (Carmen Cusack), who became her muse as well as her lover, inspiring even stronger work. Eventually, Tamara and her husband split. Tamara's father was Jewish so when Nazism and antisemitism spread across Europe and France she once again had to flee to America for a new life – this time with her Jewish art-dealer patron, The Baron (Nathaniel Stampley).
Carson Kreitzer’s book and lyrics for the story of Tamara's life are fiercely intelligent. (For example this sentence that Tamara speaks upon arriving in California: "It's a bitch to outlive your own context.") "Lempicka" is a musical with something to say – about art, about creativity, about the passage of time and especially about strong women. Three of the songs are titled "Woman Is," "The New Woman" and "Women."
The award-winning composer Matt Gould is responsible for the propulsive, irresistible music. There are more than 20 songs, and most of the spoken scenes are underscored. Gould has won the Richard Rodgers award twice and other prestigious awards as well. Remy Kurs supervised and arranged Gould's score. Charity Wicks conducted an outstanding, hard-working orchestra of nine people. They sounded like a far bigger ensemble.
Rachel Chavkin, who directed the breakthrough show "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812," is responsible for making this story of epic scope flow smoothly. We always know where we are and when. Chavkin has elicited outstanding performances as well. (More about them below). She has imagination to spare and the skill to make us see and feel what first happens in her mind.
The choreographer Raja Feather Kelly used his ensemble the way Andy Blankenbueler used his in "Hamilton" – as a crowd to set the feeling of a time, place, artwork and mood. And the few times he choreographed actual dances, they were original and exciting. The ensemble also moves the sets – really terrific pieces by Riccardo Hernandez – to suggest places and times. A suggestion of the Eiffel Tower that rises to the top of the theater is beautifully wrought.
The lighting by Bradley King is a wonder. He makes us feel each scene, and his use of silhouette for the ensemble was particularly powerful. Montana Levi Blanco designed the gorgeous costumes. Tamara's Art Deco housecoat was to die for!
The amazing cast is led by Eden Espinosa. She has a big, high-belt voice and with it made us feel Tamara's emotions deeply. It was these feelings – along with those of the other characters – that were the strong continuity of the show. Carmen Cusack was also wonderful in her role of Rafaela, a free spirit, a prostitute, a muse and a deeply sympathetic character. She, too, sung in high-belt mode. It would be hard to imagine other actresses in these roles. Steven Rattazzi was also very strong as Marinetti, an Italian painter and a creature of his time. He was an early follower of Mussolini. Alexandra Templer was charming and believable as Kizetta, Tamara's daughter, as a child. Three actors had one song each and did a fine job of them: Natalie Joy Johnson as Suzy Solidor, a cabaret-emcee type character; Rachel Tucker and the Baroness; and Nathaniel Stampley as The Baron. Andrew Samonsky did a fine job as Lempicki.
If "Lempicka" has any faults, they are at a very high level. The show, at three hours with the intermission, is a little long. And it is, perhaps, a bit too big for the intimate '62 Center at Williams College. It will fit just fine in a great, big Broadway theater, where it is undoubtedly headed.
Sadly, Lempicka is set to close on Aug. 1. Many people will not get to see it here. And some of us would like to see it again.
"Lempicka," at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, until Aug. 1. Tickets at WTFestival.org or 413-458-3200.
Book and Lyrics by Carson Kreitzer; Music by Matt Gould; Directed by Rachel Chavkin; Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly; Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements by Remy Kurs; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume design by Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting design by Bradley King; Sound design by Nevin Steinberg; Music Direction by Charity Wicks; Orchestrations by Cian McCarthy
Starring: Carmen Cusack; Eden Espinosa; Natalie Joy Johnson; Steven Rattazzi; Andrew Samonsky; Nathaniel Stampley; Alexandra Templer and Rachel Tucker.