Review: ‘Lempicka’ struggles to make a painter’s life work as a Broadway musical

NEW YORK — Say the words “Art Deco” and most people think of buildings and Miami Beach hotels. But those words also apply to the chic, tubular paintings of the artist Tamara de Lempicka, the title character of the fervently ambitious but chaotically conflicted musical from the writer-lyricist Carson Kreitzer and the composer Matt Gould, with Eden Espinosa in the title role of the Polish-born bisexual known for her spectacularly cool portraiture, filled with curvy yet crystalline expressions of the mostly female form. Madonna is a famous fan.

Was de Lempicka, hardly a U.S. household name, well suited to anchoring a commercial Broadway musical? Even if we’re talking Dali or Picasso, it’s always hard to make painters and their work sing and dance unless you’ve got more reason than is apparent here.

Indeed, a perceived need to glob on enough sexy-modern Broadway pizzazz to appeal to a broader public might well be what torpedoed “Lempicka,” now at the Longacre Theatre. This potentially appealing show would have sat more easily as a feminist, non-musical drama in a less pressured space, where the director, Rachel Chavkin, and the performers, all too aware of their need to liven up this clunky bio-musical, did not have to push so darn hard.

These are among the most overwrought and uncentered performances of the Broadway musical season so far, even though they come from some of the most talented actors. Much the same could be said for Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, which sexes the story up like we were all out clubbing with de Lempicka in some timeless bacchanal but struggles to find a vocabulary rooted in place or theme.

No doubt Kreitzer was attracted to the potentially transgressive elements of de Lempicka’s biography, given that the painter was both half-Jewish and sexually adventurous. De Lempicka was living in Warsaw during the Russian Revolution of 1917, meaning she and her husband Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) had to flee the Bolsheviks, eventually landing with a daughter Kizette (Zoe Glick, a great young actress trapped in an ill-scripted and ill-costumed kiddie part) in the fervent but male-dominated Parisian art scene of the 1920s and ’30s, before finally having to flee that, too.

In rollicking Paris, de Lempicka gets taught by the enigmatic Marinetti (stereotypically played by George Abud), enjoys the patronage of the Baron and Baroness (Nathaniel Stampley and Beth Leavel) and (in the show at least) falls in love with Rafaela (Amber Iman) while revealing a preference for immortalizing mostly wealthy women who were coloring outside the era’s lines.

“Lempicka” is not quite a hagiography but, clearly, the show feels like its subject has not enjoyed her due recognition and sets about making the revisionist case and turning its subject into a progressive heroine. Whether this musical offers a fair representation of de Lempicka’s politics or sexuality in the actual early-20th century context is up for debate, but the husband she selflessly saves from the Bolsheviks sure comes off here as an inert dude when compared with the glowing Rafaela, one of the painter’s most famous models (“Beautiful Rafaela”) and the main point in the love triangle Kreitzer constructs.

That focus does allow Iman to offer the most compelling performance of the night, with all due respect to Espinosa, who certainly pours heart and soul into her work. At times, though, at the performance I saw it felt like the star was worried the audience was laughing at the material’s clunky lyrics, rather than being empathetically drawn to her side. Actually, both were true at different times.

Espinosa treats her character as a larger-than-life diva, no doubt trying to fill out the standard Broadway assignment. That notion certainly has historical foundation and Gould’s score has some numbers that kinda fit (“Women” being the best). But the book is too devoid of wit for the character to find a way into the audience’s hearts.

Musicals that are too in love with their real-life subjects (such as this one, where I’m sure the painter’s estate had input) often don’t see the growing predictability of their now-familiar tropes.

Chavkin and her designers (the overblown set is by Riccardo Hernández, costumes are by Paloma Young and lights by Bradley King) throw all kinds of tricks at the material to make it feel hip and of the moment, but the scattered book simply repels most of them.

Frankly, the show would have been far better if it had simply evoked a savvy and brilliant artist in this richest of European eras. Shoving de Lempicka so aggressively through today’s ideological and aesthetic filters, unconscious as the act may be, has the effect of nullifying her singular ambivalence and complexity.


At the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York;