Polish-Russian Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka is the inspiration for Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould’s new pop/rock fusion musical Lempicka currently performing its pre-Broadway run at La Jolla Playhouse. The show had a premiere back in 2018 and was set to have a West Coast pre-Broadway run after that, but the global pandemic halted the production until now.
The three-hour musical travels through space and time, painting the story of Lempicka, her struggles, her ambition, her lovers, and her determination. Starting in the 1920’s, Lempicka and her husband, a Polish aristocrat, are forced out of Saint Petersburg during the Russian revolution and flee to Paris. The artist, determined to support herself and her family, starts painting, gaining the attention of her art teacher and a wealthy Baron and his wife. During a visit to a lesbian bar, Lempicka discovers her muse in club performer Rafaela, who she eventually falls in love with. Soon after, the Germans invade France, and she decides to escape once more, due to her becoming a target for the Nazi agenda because of her Jewish roots, ending up in California, where she lived the rest of her life.
From the start of the show, the initial booming sound of the score shakes your soul to the core, textbook definition of the phrase “starting with a bang”. I had never heard anything quite like it. The paradox between the time of the action and the electronic 90’s synth pop sound oozing out of the orchestra pit are an unconventional marriage that somehow works brilliantly. Rich musical numbers ranging in styles from rock, to jazz, to electronica, amongst others, set the tone of revolution, threading the story.
The phenomenal cast, masterfully directed by Rachel Chavkin, delivers moving performances from start to finish. Eden Espinosa brings magnetic honesty to the title role. We are used to gawk and rave about her impressive vocal ability, which are still very much featured, but her connection to this determined woman is palpable and a delight to watch. Amber Iman is an absolute powerhouse as Rafaela, her buttery jazz vocal tone and emotive portrayal are noteworthy. Also fantastic are Andrew Samonsky, as Tadeusz Lempicki, Tamara’s first husband, who wows with a stellar voice and potent acting, and George Abud, as Lempicka’s art teacher, Marinetti, who brings the house down with his impressive song “Perfection”.
Another standout in the cast is Natalie Joy Johnson, as club owner Suzy Solidor, her comedic chops and brassy voice are extremely impressive. Rounding out the compelling principal cast are Victor Chan and Jacquelyn Ritz, as Baron and Baroness, and Jordan Tyson, as Kizette. I also must mention that this is one of the strongest ensembles I’ve witnessed on stage in years. They bring crisp movement to Raja Feather Kelly’s dynamic choreography and impeccable vocals to every scene, making them the true heartbeat of the piece. Bravi.
The musical features stunning effortless sets by Riccardo Hernández, jaw-dropping neon lighting by Bradley King, and powerful projections by Peter Nigrini. Opulent costumes by Anita Yavich and explosive arrangements and orchestration by Remy Kurs and Cian McCarthy complete a stunning creative portrait.
One of the most exciting aspects of the show was the way the characters weave through time and connect with each other seamlessly. Every relationship is driven by passion, desire, and sexual chemistry, all in human composition as art. The moment when Rafaela and Tadeusz meet in the art gallery admiring the work of the woman, they both love and discover “what she sees” in each of them, I thought was clever and interesting as a point of view. The first act has a great pace and impactful story, and the second act dives more into each character’s emotional struggles, which as important as it is, I believe the act could use some trimming and revisiting to keep the action moving.
Throughout the performance, the theme of women empowerment rings supreme; such a crucial message for our current world to hear. Lempicka says, “We cannot control the world, just a rectangle of canvas.” A mighty statement to bring awareness to how our personal situation affects the big picture. So be a relentless LGBTQ social warrior, grab a brush, dip it in some luscious paint, and pour your heart into the universal canvas. We need it now, more than ever.
‘Lempicka’ is presented by La Jolla Playhouse with performances June 14 through July 24 at the Mandell Weiss Theater in La Jolla. Tickets and info: lajollaplayhouse.org