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Photo: Matthew Murphy

Cititour.com Review
Without question, the art of making art about artists – especially visual ones – has long proved tricky for theater makers. Stil, it’s clearly not fair for audiences to expect “Sunday in the Park with George” every time someone tries to do it!

So, for whatever credit it does deserve, I will admit that “Lempicka” the ambitious, visually compelling but otherwise muddled bio-musical about the artist Tamara de Lempicka (played consistently at full volume by Eden Espinosa) is nothing like watching paint dry.

Yet, under Rachel Chavkin’s surprisingly frazzled direction, the show, now at the Longacre Theatre, often feels like you’re watching someone put together a misguided collage – one that often incorporates elements of other stronger musicals, most notably “Cabaret” -- as it struggles to decide what story it wants to tell us and what message we’re supposed to take ith us as we leave the theatre. Women can do anything? Women never get the same credit as men? Women are brilliant? Art isn’t easy? You tell me?

Indeed, while de Lempicka herself never became a household name like Picasso or Matisse, the Polish-born artist had periods of a great success, primarily in 1920s and 1930s Europe, thanks to her often shocking Art Deco-inspired portraits of society figures and nude women (here visualized in Peter Negrini’s projections). That her success didn’t last is less a matter of changing tastes than having to change homelands because of World War II.

Still, the musical seems much more interested in titillating us with her personal life (even as it plays fast and loose with many of the actual facts). Early on, it makes a big show about how she used her body (for one night) to help get her captured husband Tadeusz (handsome Andrew Samonsky) released from a Russian prison. And large parts of the musical focus on her surprising ease with her bisexuality, whether spending time in the outre lesbian/drag bar founded by her friend Susy Solidor (a dynamic Natalie Joy Johnson) or having a torrid affair with local whore Rafaela (the incredibly compelling Amber Iman), which contributes to the downfall of Tamara’s marriage.

On the other hand, it omits the fact that Tamara had an actual affair with the kindly Baron Kuffner (a fine Nathaniel Stampley), instead positing she had a close friendship with the Baron and his wife (a criminally underused Beth Leavel, giving a nothing role 200 percent) and that it was the Baroness’ idea for Tamara to wed her husband after her untimely death.

And I have next to no clue why we needed the presence of Italian art teacher Martinetti, a certified lunatic (and future fascist), played in ultra-manic fashion by George Abud, who seems to be auditioning to become Eddie Redmayne’s replacement in “Cabaret.” He’s annoying, distracting and completely unnecessary.

The show’s shortcomings would matter far less if there was a memorable, hummable score, but what we get here ranges from the banal (a song about a bracelet, really?) to Tamara’s power ballads, which given Espinosa’s signature belt, mostly sound like trunk songs from “Wicked.” (I have never appreciated “Defying Gravity” so much in my life!)

What you will likely remember is Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract, multi-purpose set, spectacular lit by Bradley King, and, especially, Paloma Young’s colorful, often outrageous costumes, modeled by an extraordinarily attractive ensemble of performers. Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography is served by these men and women and it clearly serves its purpose, but it’s not his finest work either.

Art and theater are both subjective, so “Lempicka,” like the painter’s work, will have its fans. Personally, I’d rather just brush the whole experience off.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/14/2024
Closing 5/19/2024

Theatre Info
Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036