Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new musical uses the life of glamour portraitist and bisexual bonne vivante Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) as a hanger on which to hang—or more accurately, a closet in which to cram—multiple 20th century themes possessing present-day relevance. The evolving role of the “New Woman”—purposeful, empowered, out from under men’s thumbs—takes pride of place, but time is found to take up marital sexual politics, the nativist roots of bullyboy fascism, Soviet-style collectivism, aristocratic snobbery, alternative sexuality, anti-Semitism, and art’s purpose. Director Rachel Chavkin showed she can handle ambitious historical scope in The Great Comet of 1812, and composer Matt Gould has plenty of soaring melody at his command. But Lempicka never lights on a coherent point of view, seeing Tamara not whole, but as a conduit for assorted attitudes. This makes for a long, only fitfully engaging near-three hours.
Doggedly following and-then-I-painted chronology at odds with the Cubist touches peppering Lempicka’s Art Deco, librettist-lyricist Carson Kreitzer whisks us from the lavish Petrograd wedding of Tamara (Eden Espinosa) and Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) to his arrest by the Bolsheviks, his release, and their escape to Paris as WWI ends. And that’s just the first 20 minutes. Tadeusz is endlessly suspicious of what his “little mouse” did to obtain his freedom, but she quickly becomes the mouse that roared, her Seine-side painting attracting the interest of the capital’s émigré colony. (Pause for a couple of random mecs decrying those damn immigrants: “We’re becoming a mongrel country.”)
Headscarf and open, flowing wrapper (courtesy of designer Montana Levi Blanco) announce Rafaela (Carmen Cusack) as Tamara’s unconsciously-desired free spirit, sitting for and eventually lying down with the artist. With her wide, sad eyes and period-smart bee-stung lips, Cusack is handed the show’s most fully realized character and reciprocates with its most convincing performance, transcending cliché as a willfully mysterious yet emotionally needy shady lady. You can see she knows what will happen if she lets her guard down to expose her heart, but she does it anyway, and when the melancholy consequences arrive you see that too.
The other legs of the tripod get shorter shrift. Espinosa, one of the best-ever Wicked Elphabas, gamely belts one power ballad after another announcing her convictions, but they’re static. Rarely do we hear her piece out a problem, and reason to a decision, in song. Then there’s the question of what Lempicka is meant to represent. Is she a victim hardened by ill-use, or a selfish obsessive leaving chaos in her wake? In the vanguard of aesthetic expression, sexually advanced, middle-class at heart, or just torn between two lovers? The character moves from each to the next without discernible logic.
Meanwhile, Samonsky’s in fine voice but can do nothing with the ineffectual Tadeusz, sidelined and then excised altogether. Steven Rattazzi pops in, with energy but without sharpness, as exposition-providing, Futurism-promoting Filippo Marinetti, later leading a Blackshirt raid on a Lesbian bar. (Done in slo-mo, it reflects “man as machine” as the premise of Raja Feather Kelly’s robotic, vogueing choreography.) Nathaniel Stampley and Rachel Tucker, spot-on in brief appearances as a baronial couple, get a long farewell scene and you wonder, why are these side characters suddenly handed the center ring? And how does Tucker’s lovely “I’d Like Him to Remember Me” dovetail with this New Woman vision?
In that respect, the musicality of Lempicka is in line with its plotting: overstuffed, with points of interest along the way. Jazz Age licks and Europeanness might have been expected and even welcome, but given Gould’s desire to stay in the contempo Broadway-pop vein, the melodies are pleasant on first hearing, with exciting percussive complement from orchestrator Cian McCarthy. Kreitzer’s sensitive imagery contributes as well (when the lyrics aren’t making pronouncements). But careful pruning should be considered down the road; there’s too much of a good thing now.
On the other hand, for a show so obsessed with the concept of beauty, Lempicka is visually undistinguished to a head-shaking degree. The huge, underused cyc gets pastel washes from Bradley King (also late of Great Comet) with occasional, superfluous wartime projections. Often as not, the stage picture (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) connotes backstage clutter, with platforms cheek-by-jowl with benches and Hollywood-style Fresnels on rollers, endlessly shoved around to little effect by the ensemble. And aside from the gorgeous front curtain, we don’t get to see Lempicka’s art until the final moments, when small facsimiles of seven portraits descend briefly. That choice backfires, since anyone staring at a pink dress or reclining nude and thinking “oh, so that’s what they were talking about in that scene” isn’t paying attention to the finale.
In the world of the stage Lempicka, paintings are empty plywood frames. There’s a metaphor there for how the artist is treated in the show bearing her name, if you elect to see it.
Lempicka opened July 25, 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and runs through Aug. 1. Tickets and information: wtfestival.org