From L to
R - Michele Ragusa, Harry Hadden-Paton and Kanisha Marie Feliciano. Credit to
FLYING OVER SUNSET
musical review by Marc Miller
What is it with James
Lapine and second acts? The playwright-librettist authored Sunday in
the Park With George, a first act about an artistic masterpiece that many
considered an artistic masterpiece itself, followed by a second act even many
Sondheim fans found irrelevant, stilted, and too wide a turn to mate
companionably to the first. Into the Woods, a delightful, cheeky
mashup of tales we all grew up with, after intermission became an excursion
into darkness, symbolism, and moody negativity. And now, with Flying
Over Sunset, Lapine uses the second act to restate the character quirks he
already introduced, albeit in different, phantasmagorical terms. The drop in
elevation isn’t as precipitous this time, though, and there’s much to like and
admire in both halves of Flying Over Sunset. Its author just needs
an editor, and maybe a dramaturg.
It’s a rarity among new
Broadway musicals: an original, not from a well-remembered movie or rock
songbook, and without an ounce of hip-hop or meaningless soul-inspired vocal
pyrotechnics. Lapine, along with composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Michael Korie,
has taken an actual phenomenon of life in 1950s Hollywood and embroidered it
with whimsical what-might-have-been speculation. This much really happened: In
that far-off decade, West Coast denizens Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck), Aldous
Huxley (Harry Haddon-Paton), and Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack) all
experimented with LSD, which was then legal, and recommended by some prominent
doctors and psychiatrists as a means of expanding consciousness and furthering
self-discovery. All three had good trips, which they recounted in essays and/or
interviews. As far as we know, they didn’t know each other, and they certainly
didn’t trip together. But what if, aided by spiritual scholar and “guide”
Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), who was Huxley’s good friend, they did?
Thus the stage is set for
a series of hallucinogenic expeditions, punctuated by prosaic book scenes,
where Lapine’s dialogue, while well versed in the real-life histories of the
four principals, is rather flat. His basic three-part formula is: set up the
central conflict in the subject’s head; bring on the drugs; and resolve that
conflict through insights gained during the psychedelic journey.
Which is all somewhat
rote. Grant can’t reconcile his transition from a miserable Cockney childhood—a
brutish father who institutionalized his wife, though she was quite sane, and
lied to his son that she had died—to urbane, much-envied screen sophisticate.
Huxley, having authored Brave New World and The Doors
of Perception (itself a ringing endorsement of mind-altering
substances), is adrift, and mourning the loss of his wife, Maria (Laura Shoop),
who here seems fascinating enough to merit her own musical. Luce, having led a
charmed existence as beautiful debutante, celebrated playwright (The Women),
and Republican congresswoman and U.S. ambassador to Italy, suffers from a
failing marriage, to magazine tycoon Henry Luce, and the devastating loss of
both her mother and daughter in separate car accidents a few years apart. And
Heard, guilt-wracked over his homosexuality, as most gay men were in that era,
has vowed celibacy and sought raised consciousness through LSD and other
substances, which he once described as “the sober certainty of waking bliss.”
It’s all rather schematic,
isn’t it? And Lapine, having set up the orderly suffer-hallucinate-heal
triptych, doesn’t embroider it with a whole lot of psychological insight. What
he does do, thankfully, is lay out the framework for a truly dazzling visual
and aural feast.
God bless Beowulf Boritt.
His set, at first a vast, empty blue cyclorama (lighting, and it’s stunning, by
Bradley King), aided by fellow designers Toni-Leslie James (costumes) and 59
Productions (projections), can turn the Vivian Beaumont stage into simply anything
he wants, from a Hollywood Rexall drugstore to Luce’s leafy Connecticut estate
to the Pacific Ocean. The hallucinogenic episodes, dressed in wild Technicolor
hues, keep coming up with new tricks, which won’t be divulged here. And the
visual beauty is partnered with something many recent musicals have lacked:
music. Kitt’s work, wrapped up in Michael Starobin’s string-and-harp-heavy
orchestrations, is pretty, tuneful, and period-accurate, from Grant’s
drug-induced music-hall turn with his younger self (a superb Atticus Ware), an
authentic show-stopper, to the lush, hummable title tune, to the finale, “The
23rd Ingredient,” which posits, in Korie’s polished lyric, that the 22 basic
ingredients of the human body are supplemented by one more, the soul.
company of Lincoln Center Theater's FLYING OVER SUNSET. Credit to Joan Marcus
Good work, too, from
Michelle Dorrance, whose choreography includes not only that astonishing
music-hall tap duet but a smooth ballroom turn for Grant and Sophia Loren
(Emily Pynenburg), after whom he lusted (though a few years later than depicted
here). Yazbeck is probably the best Cary Grant 2021 can offer: He’s as
outwardly debonair and inwardly conflicted as the real thing, and he doesn’t
over-peddle the accent. Cusack, though sometimes unintelligible in her lyrics,
sings gorgeously and paints a three-dimensional Clare Boothe Luce, one we’re
not always encouraged to like. Haddon-Paton, asked to play little more than an
unhappy British intellectual, does so persuasively, and Sella, whose Heard is
somewhat underwritten, squeezes genuine sympathy out of what he’s given.
There are odd touches: a
mystifying echoing-feet motif, with characters marching around that big stage to
no apparent purpose, and Grant’s goofy LSD episode envisioning himself as a
“giant penis rocket ship,” and a pointless 11th-hour blowup between Luce and
Heard that’s quickly resolved and forgotten. And Lapine’s direction, which
stretches the playing time out to almost three hours, could be zippier.
But let’s not quibble.
Whatever it lacks in drama or logic, most of Flying Over Sunset is
quite wonderful to look at and listen to. And while I’m no expert on LSD
episodes, what shows up onstage seems pretty evocative of them. Hooray for a
new musical that is rich in imagination, isn’t refurbished goods, and will
yield a cast album you’ll actually want to buy.
Flying Over Sunset
Playing at the Vivian
Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th St.
Through Feb. 6, 2022