REVIEW: WORLD PREMIERE OF “LEMPICKA” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

LempickaMaking its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lempicka is a breathtaking masterpiece that is destined to become the next great American musical.

Based on the rags-to-riches story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins in 1916 with the artist and her husband Tadeusz abandoning their aristocratic lives to flee the Russian Revolution. The couple arrives in Paris to start anew, and to survive, Lempicka embraces her all-consuming love of painting. It’s there that she meets Rafaela, a prostitute who becomes both her lover and muse. Suddenly, Lempicka is torn between two worlds: the comfortable life she knows with Tadeusz and the infinite possibilities she is discovering through her affair.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka once famously said. But as fascism casts an increasingly long shadow over Parisian society, the innovative painter must decide who she is – and if she can have it all – in a moment of history defined by intolerance and chaos.

Playing the titular character, Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn the Musical) is a revelation. As an actor, she arms Lempicka with confidence, charm, staggering intellect, a bleeding heart, and a raw, urgent need to express herself through art. As a vocalist, Espinosa is as powerful and talented as the character she’s playing was a painter. Even notoriously hard-to-please critic Ben Brantley proclaimed that “Eden Espinosa’s Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to Ms. Patty LuPone’s Eva Perón” in his glowing New York Times Critic’s Pick review.

“From the very first moment I heard the music, I knew it was special and unique. I knew Tamara’s story needed to be told,” Espinosa posted to Instagram on the show’s opening night. “I’m beyond humbled to portray this unbelievable woman. So proud to share the stage with the kindest, most generous, hearts and spirits. In awe of the talents and visions of the creatives. I have been broken open and renewed. I have been stretched beyond limits. I am new.”

While playing this character may be a transformative point in Espinosa’s career, the audience also has the rare treat of watching her tackle what is a role that she so clearly was born to play. The result is one of those can’t miss, superstar-solidifying performances of the same caliber as Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple or Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, her depiction of Lempicka is so nuanced and multi-dimensional that if it could be captured on a canvas, it would fit perfectly alongside the artist’s renowned self-portraits as a mandatory understanding of her legacy.

One would think, then, that it would be impossible to have eyes on anything but Espinosa’s greatness during this show. Yet part of what makes Lempicka so marvelous and unstoppably delightful is that not only does the rest of the company hold their own, they shine in their individual and undeniable ways.

This is particularly true of the always-fabulous Carmen Cusack, whose impassioned portrayal of Rafaela is as gorgeous and unique as her unmistakable singing voice. As the spark that ignites Lempicka’s artistic fire, the Tony nominee (2016’s Bright Star) delivers yet another unforgettable performance. Like Espinosa, her vocal prowess is a weapon that penetrates deeply into the souls of her audience. Hearing the two of them belt and blend harmonies at once induces the type of full body chills that too few theatergoers ever have the luxury of experiencing first-hand. Despite the nearly three-hour runtime, the show feels too short: you don’t want to ever stop listening to these two powerhouses duet.

Lempicka

Additional standout performances include Rachel Tucker (who like both Espinosa and Cusack has played Elphaba in Wicked) as The Baroness, a bold woman who commissions Lempicka for a portrait based on ulterior motives. As Suzi Solidor, a lesbian whose bar becomes a temporary refuge for the Parisian queer community, Natalie Joy Johnson is a scene-stealer. And as Tadeusz, Andrew Samonsky brings palpable vulnerability to a man who increasingly struggles with living in his wife’s shadow.

With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, the songs of Lempicka are as exquisite as are the talents performing them. Though the musical is set in the first half of the twentieth century, the songs are definitively present-day. With a modern pop flair combined with echoes of the storytelling grandeur of classics like Les Misérables, the richly layered music of Lempicka demands that the cast give their A-games at every show.

The results are catchy, impressive and beautiful—so much so that the fact that the cast recording is not yet available for sale feels like a major crime.  In an era dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals, numbers like the empowering “Burn It Up”, the sultry “Stillness” and the climactic “The New Woman” serve as vivid reminders of how impactful original musicals can still be.

“A friend introduced me to Lempicka and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn’t know who she was. And that’s a wrong in the universe,” Kreitzer told The Berkshire Eagle. “I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open.”

“The music leapt off the canvasses,” Gould continued. “And I didn’t know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time.” Through their combined brushstrokes, Kreitzer and Gould’s songs paint a picture of a phenomenally talented and complex woman whose extraordinary story becomes instantly unforgettable for anyone who listens to them.

Like the score, Rachel Chavkin’s avant-garde directorial vision fuses the period piece with a contemporary sensibility. Chavkin already demonstrated her genius with Broadway’s cutting-edge 2016 musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812– another show that interpolated a perennial story with a distinctly current imagination. With Lempicka, she once again breaks theatrical ground. Between these two shows, it’s quite evident that the Tony-nominated director has a penchant for reshaping the lenses with which audiences observe stories they may think they already know.

Lempicka

Whether it’s completely revamping a Broadway theater into an Imperial Russian ballroom or marrying a sparse set with evocative lighting, Chavkin creates a fully immersive and genre-defying experience for those consuming her meticulous work (think of the grand scope of Julie Taymor mixed with the intimacy of David Cromer). Her brilliant staging is complemented perfectly by Bradley King’s stunning lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’ minimalist scenic design, Montana Levi Blanco’s lavish costumes and Raja Feather Kelly’s magnificent choreography. The sum of these parts adds up to the most astounding, daring and exciting new musical of 2018.

In its 64th season, the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has delivered home run after home run. For Lempicka, this world premiere production is the beginning of a journey that should include a sweep of the Tony Awards, affirming the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Lempicka, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts until August 1.

Originally published on PopBytes

5 REASONS NOT TO MISS “THE ROSE TATTOO” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

wtf-2016-heroesThis year, the legendary and revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts is opening its 62nd season with a production of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Rose Tattoo. Winner of the 1951 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark comedy is directed by Obie Award-winner Trip Cullman and is playing on the Festival’s Main Stage now through July 17th.

Here are our top five reasons not to miss this production of The Rose Tattoo:

1 MARISA TOMEI’S ITALIAN HOMECOMING

Marisa TomeiThe last time that Marisa Tomei tapped into her Italian background to bring a character to life, she won an Academy Award. This time around, the My Cousin Vinny star plays Serafina, a Sicilian immigrant in Louisiana who can’t seem to get back on her feet after the death of her husband. A recluse in her own home, she can barely get dressed and spends years drowning in memories instead of trying to create new ones.

Because she’s the only local seamstress, Serafina is on the receiving end of the anger and frustration of neighboring women because she doesn’t bother to fill orders in any sort of timely fashion. As a ferociously devout Catholic, her go-to source for advice, clarity, and purpose, is an old figurine of the Virgin Mary. Her religion also acts as the lens through which sees people – like the village idiot, who she claims must have shaken hands with the devil because of her crooked nails. Then there’s her teenage daughter’s sailor boyfriend. As soon as Serafina meets him, she makes him get on his knees in front of the Virgin Mary figurine to swear to not take advantage of her child’s innocence and return her home with her virginity intact.

Complete with a thick Italian accent, Tomei portrays Serafina as a frantic, emotionally unraveling woman, who at the same time is loud, in-your-face, energetic and full of sassy zingers. This makes her clashes with the townspeople and her overbearing relationship with her daughter hilarious to watch. What Tomei so impressively does is use Serafina’s pain to create a fiercely comical character whose outrageous, highly entertaining, and ultimately heartwarming roller-coaster journey is nothing short of a comedic master class.

2 CONSTANCE SHULMAN’S SCENE-STEALING PERFORMANCE

As Yoga Jones in Orange Is The New Black, Constance Shulman gives off a very mellow, calm, and peaceful presence. In The Rose Tattoo, however, she gets to show off a whole new side of herself. As The Strega, Shulman is outlandish, crazy, and above all, a huge gossip. Physically, she’s disheveled and looks like a cross between a witch from Macbeth and a pirate from a Tim Burton film. Whether she’s chasing the goat or giving foul-mouthed recaps of the goings on she’s seen about town, Shulman steals every scene she’s in with her ridiculous antics and biting banter.

3 THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN MARISA TOMEI AND CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT

Christopher Abbott and Marisa TomeiIn Act II, the grieving Serafina decides to give love another chance when she meets the handsome, younger Alvaro Mangiacavallo (whose last name literally means “eat a horse”). Alvaro, immediately smitten by the widow, goes to extreme lengths to convince Serafina to open her heart again. He even gets a rose tattoo on his chest like the one that her dead husband had. To Serafina, Alvaro has the same body as her ex (but with a “clown face”), and she takes this as a sign from the Virgin Mary to allow him into her bed. The affair that ensues becomes an increasingly over-the-top, uproarious series of dramas and misgivings. Tomei and Abbott carry the comedy beautifully, while also having palpable sexual tension and chemistry. It’s impossible not to root for them.

4 LINDSAY MENDEZ’ VOICE

Stage veteran Lindsay Mendez sings various Italian songs to set an array of tones throughout the show. Mendez – whose impressive credits include Significant Other,Wicked, Dogfight, Godspell, Grease andEveryday Rapture – has a soaring and evocative voice that adds texture and depth to whatever Serafina is feeling at the moment of her next scene. Her emotional, soulful delivery of this music is worth the price of admission alone, and it powerfully ties the play together in a simultaneously stunning and intelligent way.

5 THE SET (+ GOAT!)

Mark Wendland’s meticulous scenic design brilliantly transforms the stage into a genuine Southern coastal town. Extending through the orchestra of the theater is a wooden catwalk that immediately morphs the venue into a boardwalk. The way that Serafina’s house is anchored on its side allows audience members to clearly see her when she goes inside without sacrificing the feeling that they are surrounded by the beach.

The stage is covered in sand, and Serafina’s waterfront property is adorned by dozens of pink flamingos. The flamingos aren’t real, but the show does feature a live animal. A goat makes several appearances on stage, acting as a symbol of Serafina’s intense sexual feelings – whether it is when she remembers her husband or thinking about the temptation of Alvaro.

The Rose Tattoo

Wrapped in the backdrop of the set is Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design of a beach. Throughout the show, the waves constantly crash against the shore, making the audience forget they’re even inside. As the days turn into nights, the beach gets darker and the clear blue water turns into a black abyss with glowing foam washing up in front of it. This produces a truly transcendent effect, which will make you want to drive straight from Williamstown to Cape Cod.


Click HERE to purchase your tickets to The Rose Tattoo, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA through July 17th.

Originally published on PopBytes