top of page


When I saw the world premiere of “Lempicka” - about the bold, Polish emigre portrait artist who entranced Paris in the 1930s - at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 2018, I wrote that, despite its ambitions, it wasn’t a consequential addition to the canon of musicals about artists and the creative process. Now on Broadway, after some book adjustments, a critical cast change, some new songs and obvious additional investment in production (and another tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse) “Lempicka” still falls short.

In remarkable pretense, one of the early lines in the play, uttered by Lempicka is “line, color, form, shadow and light”, an obvious reference to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”. "Lempicka” doesn’t even come close.

And that’s a shame because Lempicka’s tale, interpreted by playwright Carson Kreitzer (who also wrote the lyrics), should be captivating. Born to Polish-Jewish parents, Tamara de Lempicka (played by Eden Espinosa of Elphaba “Wicked” fame) is pushed into early marriage to aristocrat Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) by her socialite mother. Fleeing the Russian revolution, the Lempickis and their young daughter leave an affluent life behind and escape to Paris where Tamara resumes her youthful interest in painting to support her family. She studies art under the tutelage of a fictionalized composite of her real instructors, here called Marinetti (the talented George Abud). Eventually she finds success for her Art Deco portraits of the wealthy and for her highly stylized paintings of nudes. Her major patrons are a Baron (Nathanial Stampley) and the Baroness (Beth Leavel). Lempicka had numerous affairs with both men and women; in Kreitzer’s treatment, the play focuses on her relationship with Rafaela (Amber Iman), a prostitute who dwells in the Paris’ demi-monde. The musical is bookended with an elderly Lempicka reflecting on her life from a park bench in Los Angeles, to where Lempicka had fled from Europe in 1939 fearing the rise of Hitler.

Credit to playwright Kreitzer who conceived the production and the show’s producers for undertaking an original musical, especially in the wake of so many revivals, jukebox musicals, bio-musicals and movies-into-musicals populating Broadway today. Kudos, too, to Riccardo Hernandez for his austere, Deco-inspired scenic design of odd shaped projection screens, sweeping runways, platforms, abundant images drawn from the Lempicka oeuvre, all framed in a semi-arch suggesting the base of the Eiffel Tower.

But creative “improvements”' to the production have unintended effects. In making Lempicka a more sympathetic character, her complicated choices as mother, wife, lover, artist, and political refugee get simplified. Further undermining the show’s aspirations are efforts to make it more entertaining: the inclusion of modern wisecracks (“what the fuck?”); camp humor (the Baroness’ line “it’s a beaver'' brings down the house); and, flashy production numbers (“Don’t Bet Your Heart’ is a sexy disco tune, but in Paris in 1930…really?). Elements like these tend to diminish the gravitas of Lempicka’s story; what’s more , they desensitize how anti-Semitism and Fascism affected Lempicka’s real-life choices.

Direction by Rachel Chavkin doesn’t realize the rhythm or balance that she achieved with “Hadestown”. Her efforts are cluttered by the mindless, frenetic choreography by Raja Feather Kelly for an ambi-gendered ten-member ensemble which aggressively deploys every stage cliché of mugging, preening and smirking. They dash about screaming revolution, evoking whatever time and place we’re supposed to be. Whether singing “Pari Will Always Be Pari” or marching with swastikas, the chorus sets the era when the writing fails to. The score by Matt Gould in his Broadway debut has a lot of generic power ballads for the title character.

The wondrously talented Andrew Samonsky is underutilized in the thankless, unpersuasive and underwritten role of Lempicka’s husband Tadeusz. The ever droll Beth Leavel displays perfect-timing (as usual) and has a nice number near the end of the show, “Just This Way” . Natalie Joy Johnson camps it up in the musical comedy cliché role as owner of a lesbian bar.

The major liability of “Lempicka” is - as was the case in its premiere - the casting of Rafaela, Lempicka’s model, muse and romantic obsession . In Williamstown, Carmen Cusak was plainly wrong for the part. Now, the strikingly beautiful, statuesque Amber Iman has the role, but she’s not particularly persuasive as a prostitute in the 1930s; she’s costumed as if she wandered in from the cast of “Hair”. Worse, she and Lempicka have no sexual chemistry which should be the engine driving the show, as Kreitzer has made their relationship the centerpiece of the story. Still, she has a marvelously, seductive, strong voice; her bluesy rendition of “The Most Beautiful Bracelet” is the most distinctive in the show.

It’s fortunate that the lead Eden Espinosa has the powerhouse voice she has; she’s on stage for nearly all the show, save about 15 minutes. Her Art-Deco styled costumes by Paloma Young aren’t flattering, but that is the least of the problems such a talented lead performer confronts in "Lempicka" .


Featured Posts
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page