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A person standing next to a chair

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Eden Espinosa (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)


By Fern Siegel

Tamara de Lempicka, the famed Art Deco artist, is a captivating subject for a musical. And Lempicka, the ravishing Broadway musical at the Longacre, brings her art and extraordinary life to a new generation.

Lempicka is one of the rare original musicals, not a book shoehorned around pre-existing songs, however good the show. Instead, we get a glimpse of a passionate modern woman who finds her voice — her art — against the most tumultuous moments of the 20th century.

Forced to flee the Russian Revolution in 1918 without their wealth, the young Polish Jew (a stunning Eden Espinosa) and her high-born husband Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) head to Paris. There, the penniless refugee with an infant to support is reborn — as a painter.

A person and person in a dress

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Eden Espinosa, Andrew Samonsky (Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

She paints to survive, but her work, which is mocked by her teacher, the Italian futurist Marinetti (George Abud), is singular. (Why is women's art "decorative," but men's masterful? Sexism.) He worships the machine age, which Riccardo Hernandez's mechanized set and Peter Nigrini's projections neatly capture. But machine-like collective precision also foreshadows the distant rumblings of fascism.

Conversely, Lempicka, who studied at an academy, paints sensual portraits with a nod to a softer cubism and neoclassicalism. Known for her compelling nudes and images of the well-heeled, Lempicka, "the baroness with the brush," eventually becomes a 1920s-1930s sensation. Her rise mirrors the changing mores of post-war Europe. Her 1929 "Autoportrait" is a famous self-portrait; she's positioned behind the wheel of a green Bugatti, while her nudes celebrated female form and desire.

While she loves her husband, she's also transformed by the emerging New Woman determined to command her own destiny. These urban working women strive for independence: social, economic and sexual. For the bisexual Lempicka, that arrives in the form of free-spirited Rafaela (Amber Iman), who enthralls her. (Both women earned Tony nominations.) Their affair is still taboo in conventional circles, but it enhances her talent. She makes bold female sexuality the crux of her artistry.

A couple of women in white shirts

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Amber Iman, Eden Espinosa ((Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The paintings of Rafaela captivate Paris and helped secure Lempicka a key place in an international exposition, as do acclaimed images of Kizette (Zoe Glick), her daughter. Lempicka enjoyed relationships with men and women, while hobnobbing with high society. She was also friends with other liberated female artists and writers, such as Vita Sackville-West, Colette, Nancy Cunard and the French singer- actor, Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson).

The show, with book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and a pop music score by Matt Gould, is clever and deftly paced. The songs are stellar, such as "Women," an anthem for the era; "I Will Paint Her," Lempicka's ballad on the lure of creation; and "Perfection," an ominous look at the future. We would benefit from more images of her paintings in act one. But that deficit is corrected in act two. That the nature of art, the dangers of political extremism, the complications of love, and the cost to those caught in history's vortex are addressed in a two-hour-plus show is a triumph.

Director Rachel Chavkin, a Tony winner for Hadestown, has fashioned a remarkable show with style and sophistication with a top-notch cast. Raja Feather Kelly's electric choreography embodies the thematic concerns, while Paloma Young's costumes are perfect. Co-starring Beth Leavel and Nathaniel Stampley as rich art collectors, Lempicka, which closes May 19, deserved a much longer run. It does what few shows do: paints an epic portrait of an age.


Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes,

through May 19