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Struggling Broadway Musical ‘Lempicka’: A Review

NEW YORK — When the term “Art Deco” is mentioned, most individuals immediately associate it with buildings and hotels in Miami Beach. However, this artistic style also extends to the elegant, tubular artworks of Tamara de Lempicka, the central figure in a passionately ambitious yet internally conflicted musical crafted by writer-lyricist Carson Kreitzer and composer Matt Gould. Eden Espinosa takes on the titular role of this production, portraying the Polish-born bisexual artist renowned for her exquisitely chic portraits that intricately capture the female form with both soft curves and sharp, crystalline features. Notably, even the iconic Madonna counts herself as a fan of de Lempicka’s work.

The question arises: Was de Lempicka, a relatively obscure figure in American households, truly the ideal anchor for a mainstream Broadway musical? It has always been a challenge to translate the essence of painters and their art into a musical format, especially when the rationale behind such an adaptation remains somewhat elusive.

The current production of “Lempicka” at the Longacre Theatre seems to have perhaps faltered in its attempt to infuse enough contemporary Broadway glamour to attract a wider audience. This intriguing show might have found a more natural home as a non-musical feminist drama in a less commercially driven setting. The pressure to inject vitality into this somewhat cumbersome biographical musical appears to have led the director, cast, and crew to exert excessive effort.

Regrettably, the performances in “Lempicka” come across as overly dramatic and lacking in focus, despite the undeniable talent of the actors involved. This sentiment extends to Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, which, while adding a sensual flair to the narrative, struggles to establish a cohesive language rooted in the production’s setting and themes.

Carson Kreitzer likely gravitated towards the potentially provocative aspects of de Lempicka’s life story, particularly her mixed heritage and unconventional sexuality. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of Warsaw during the Russian Revolution, where de Lempicka and her husband Tadeusz Lempicki (played by Andrew Samonsky) are forced to flee to Paris with their daughter Kizette (portrayed by Zoe Glick). The story delves into the vibrant yet male-dominated art scene of 1920s and ‘30s Paris, highlighting de Lempicka’s encounters with figures like Marinetti (depicted in a stereotypical manner by George Abud) and her romantic involvement with Rafaela (played by Amber Iman), while showcasing her preference for portraying affluent women who defied societal norms.

While “Lempicka” aims to present a nuanced portrayal of its titular character, positioning her as a trailblazing feminist icon, the extent to which this musical accurately reflects de Lempicka’s political views and sexuality within the historical context remains open to interpretation. The dynamics of the love triangle crafted by Kreitzer, focusing on Rafaela as a central figure, allow Amber Iman to deliver a standout performance, overshadowing even the dedicated efforts of Espinosa.

Espinosa’s portrayal exudes a larger-than-life persona, a characteristic often associated with Broadway divas. Despite her heartfelt dedication to the role, there are moments where it feels as though she is grappling with the audience’s reception, particularly in light of the musical’s at times awkward lyrics. The disconnect between the material and the audience’s engagement is palpable, underscoring the challenges posed by the production’s shortcomings.

In attempting to elevate de Lempicka to a contemporary feminist icon, “Lempicka” may have inadvertently oversimplified her complexities and inner conflicts. The production’s heavy-handed approach in filtering her story through modern ideological lenses risks diminishing the artist’s enigmatic persona.

At the Longacre Theatre in New York, director Rachel Chavkin and her creative team employ various visual and technical elements to infuse the production with a sense of modernity. However, these efforts struggle to coalesce cohesively due to the disjointed nature of the script.

In essence, “Lempicka” could have potentially thrived by celebrating the brilliance of an artist navigating the opulent European landscape of her time. By forcefully imposing contemporary sensibilities onto de Lempicka’s narrative, the production inadvertently dilutes her intricate ambivalence and multifaceted character.

At the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York; Chris Jones is a Tribune critic. [email protected]