LEMPICKA is Bold, But Frustratingly Generic — Review


Eden Espinosa and the company of Lempicka | Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Joey Sims
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April 15, 2024 11:55 PM

Messy and maddening, new musical Lempicka has all the pedigree for something groundbreaking but never finds its own distinctive form. Tackling the life of semi-forgotten Art Deco master Tamara de Lempicka with an unapologetically queer, feminist lens and a contemporary electro-pop sound, the new musical only sparingly succeeds at matching its subject’s artistic boldness, more often falling into genericism and cliché. 

The titular artist’s extraordinary life demands a certain boldness in its telling. Born in Poland in 1898, Tamara (Eden Espinosa) married in Russia at a young age, then fled with her husband to France following the revolution of 1917. She flourished in Paris between the wars, producing hundreds of celebrated portraits and enjoying various affairs — with both men and women — as she moved between high society and the city’s underground queer community. Amidst the rise of facism in Europe, she fled again to California and fell into relative obscurity. 

California is where Lempicka begins, with a clunky in medias res opening set in 1975. An older Tamara reflects on her lost legacy, questioning us: “Do you know who I am?” The framing device is needless and quickly dispensed within Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s hurried book, which soon jumps back to 1918.

Kreitzer and Gould speed through Tamara’s early years in Russia, showing a loose regard for historical detail which will pervade throughout the evening. When her wealthy husband Tadeusz Łempicki (Andrew Samonsky) is imprisoned by Bolshevik revolutionaries, Tamara risks her life and suffers sexual violation in exchange for his freedom, and the two escape to France.

The Company | Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Once the show has settled in Paris, Gould’s energetic pop-rock score (with lyrics by Kreitzer) takes flight. The soaring “Don’t Bet Your Heart” introduces an effervescent Amber Iman as Rafaela, a model and sex worker who becomes Tamara’s lover. Pulsing rock-banger “Perfection,” an anthem to Futurism, is gloriously delivered by the enjoyably heinous George Abud, hamming it up as Tamara’s misogynistic mentor Marinetti. 

This creative team, led by genius director Rachel Chavkin, seems most energized when tackling big, chewy questions around the limits of artistic revolution in a repressive society. There is a thrilling contradiction to handing Marinetti, a backwards-thinking beast of a man, the show’s most energizing numbers. When he and Tamara clash, her sensuous humanity pushing against Marinetti’s rigid brutalism, those big ideas take on an exciting musical life. Gould’s contemporary score is also effective on a conceptual level — Tamara was a radical in her time, so lending her artistic expression a modern musical vernacular makes sense. 

But even with that modern sound, some grounding in historical context is essential. Here, Kreitzer’s book is sorely lacking. Grand Ol’ Paree is painted sketchily — as Tamara discovers the city’s queer underbelly, it sometimes feels like she has stumbled into a gay bar in Bushwick. Never having decided if the characters should speak like period creations or modern-day creatures, Gould and Kreitzer instead allow themselves a little of both, which deepens the tonal confusion. 

The most fatal issue, though, is the show’s central focus on Tamara’s dueling loves: stiff husband Tadeusz and free-wheeling Rafaela. This dilemma takes up most of the narrative real estate, but proves deathly dull. Despite the heavenly-voiced Samonsky’s best efforts, Tadeusz is a wet blanket whose constant moaning sucks the energy out of every scene. And while Iman could never be anything but riveting on stage, Rafaela is thinly-sketched and never takes on compelling internal life. 

The Company | Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Chavkin struggles to enliven this leaden emotional conflict. Her work only ignites when tracing Tamara’s artistic journey. There is an interesting choice to trap the vibrant, colorful world built by Chavkin collaborators – Paloma Young’s ravishing costumes, Bradley King’s hectic lighting, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly’s crisp choreography – in the suffocating maze of Riccardo Hernández’s industrial set, giving visual form to the limits forced upon Tamara’s artistic expression. 

Espinosa is, oddly enough, most intriguing at her most bored. As she comes into herself as an artist, Tamara grows disinterested in Tadeusz’s whining, often seeming to tune him out. Even her daughter Kizette (Zoe Glick) rarely holds her interest. Both are distractions, ultimately, to life lived fully as an artist. That’s fascinating, if not exactly the stuff soaring ballads are made of — Espinosa belts impressively, but the emotion of her biggest numbers feels forced. 

A devastating 11 o’clock number points to the more probing show Lempicka could have been. Tamara’s longtime benefactor The Baroness, played by the invaluable Beth Leavel, asks for a portrait. Confessing that she is dying, she reflects movingly on art’s magical power to “make a moment stay.” Art’s power in a world of impermanence takes a central focus, for a moment, this musical finds a specificity it is otherwise so sorely lacking. 

Lempicka is now in performance at the Longacre Theatre on West 48th Street in New York City. 

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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