Theater Review: “Lempicka” is a Stunner – and You Only Have Two More Weeks to Embrace It

Kevin Taft reviews Lempicka, an absolutely thrilling theatrical experience, with outstanding performances, a jaw-dropping set, and soaring music.
User Rating: 9

It is disheartening to write a review for the new musical Lempicka, knowing it will close in two weeks. Despite three Tony Nominations for Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Eden Espinosa), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Amber Iman), and Best Scenic Design, for some reason, the subject matter is not connecting with audiences. And that’s a shame.

Why? Because the character at the center of this show is painter Tamara de Lempicka (played by Broadway icon Eden Espinosa), an artist whose work the world has known for decades. Her art deco sensual forms have been featured in the concerts, videos, and movies of Madonna (who is a fan), the covers of Ayn Rand’s controversial novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” and includes Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand as collectors.

We all know her work, but not everyone knows her story.

In this triumphant pop/rock musical by newcomers Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, Lempicka’s life is condensed into an epic story of a woman finding her artistic voice just as she’s discovering her personal self. It’s a complex character who finds herself in love with two people: her husband, Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky), and a prostitute, Rafaela (Amber Iman), with whom she has a lengthy affair and who becomes one of her featured subjects.

Early in the story, she and her husband escape the Russian Revolution and find themselves in Paris. However, as her husband finds work, she has no direction and needs to survive. Seeing the painters making money from their work near the Eiffel Tower, she picks up a brush and starts to paint, eventually making a name for herself. But her sensual nudes aren’t received well at first, especially by the founder of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (an excellent George Abud), who becomes a mentor of sorts despite his dislike of some of her work.

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While Kreitzer and Gould’s book skims over aspects of Lempicka’s life, takes dramatic liberties with aspects of her story, and a few of the characters (including Rafaela) become composite characters, it’s a compelling overview of an artist many don’t know about, but all have seen in some way.

Some critics have taken issues with this, but name one musical or film that hasn’t. (“Funny Girl” is one that comes to mind.)

What is surprising about Lempicka” is just how much talent is seen on stage and behind the curtain. The score by Kretizer and Gould is phenomenal. How it didn’t receive a Tony nomination is beyond my comprehension. With its grandiose, driving pop/rock score, the lead actors are all given numerous moments to shine.

Espinosa’s Act I ender “Woman Is” is a belt-worthy ballad of her attraction and love for Rafaela. Abud’s declaration of the future of art in “Perfection” is an industrial number reminiscent of “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical “Chess.”  (In fact, the entire score feels like it is cut from the same cloth, which is a good thing as Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice’s score has grown to be one of the most respected scores of the last fifty years.)

Iman’s “Stay,” about her love for Lempicka, is also a standout number, which certainly helped her win the Tony nomination.

The scenic design by Ricardo Hernandez and Peter Nigrini is stunning. It crafts the action around the girds and railings of the Eiffel Tower to a beautiful effect.

Also noteworthy are the thrilling choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, the lighting design by Bradley King, the costumes by Paloma Young, and the exquisite direction by Rachel Chavkin of “Hadestown” fame.

The talent here is breathtaking. Espinosa can pretty much do no wrong, and she embodies the artist with a strength and vulnerability that draws you into her story. Iman brings a complexity to the tough and assured Rafaela, and Abud is electrifying as Marinetti.

Another great surprise is Natalie Joy Johnson as the dry, sassy bar owner, Suzy Solidor, who eventually opens a lesbian bar in a world that isn’t quite ready for sexual identities to be out in the open.

There is a strong, positive LGBTQ+ vibe in Lempicka that I hope will draw that community to the show in the next few weeks. My hope is that enough people will discover it to keep it open for a little while longer. Perhaps Madonna can put her weight behind it and make it the must-see show that it deserves to be.

Lempicka is absolutely thrilling, with outstanding performances, a jaw-dropping set, and soaring music I can’t get out of my head.

Do yourself a favor and grab tickets as soon as you can. Lempicka, the artist, might be gone forever, but the show about her legacy doesn’t have to be.

“Lempicka” continues at the Longacre Theater in NYC through May 19, 2024.

9
Amazing
Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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