“Lempicka” is an exciting look at the life and career of a pioneering artist

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Two women sitting close looking into each others eyes.
LEMPICKA (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
The Cast of LEMPICKA dancing on stage.
The Cast of LEMPICKA (photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Tamara de Lempicka (pronounced “lem-PEE-kah”, 1898-1980) had been a long-forgotten name in the art world. One of the most renowned artists and portraitists of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Lempicka was one of the masters of the Art Deco movement in both Europe and the United States. Her life and art are the subjects of the new Broadway musical Lempicka, and the show is as hot and vibrant as the age and the woman herself — emotionally exciting and visually breathtaking. It is a show that captivates and seduces, leaving you in awe of the sheer talent involved with it.

We first meet Tamara de Lempicka (Mariand Torres) in late 70’s Hollywood. She frets that she and her art will be forgotten. In memory, Tamara takes us back to her wedding day in Imperial Russia to the handsome Polish count Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky). Their perilous flight from the Revolution to safety in Paris finds Tadeusz jobless and depressed, but encourages Tamara to restart her hobby of painting. She takes classes with the bitter Modernist artist Marinetti (George Abud) who disparages her art, claiming she is unoriginal. Her work introduces her to a new world of appreciative friends, including bohemian party organizer Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson), an encouraging Baroness (Beth Leavel) and her doting husband (Nathaniel Stampley), and the demimonde Rafaela (Amber Iman) who becomes Tamara’s muse and lover. Unfortunately, the demands of her artistic career keep Lempicka from Tadeusz and their only child, Kizette (Zoe Glick).

The carefree 20’s soon change into the troubling 30’s, with a worldwide depression and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Tamara is increasingly torn between career, Tadeusz and Kizette, and Rafaela. As the threat of invasion becomes ever more real, Tamara has to navigate a difficult course between her art, her life, her family, and her lover.

Director Rachel Chavkin does brilliant work in encouraging her actors to embrace the many sides of Lempicka’s tensely liberating story. Allowing no one character to be cast as hero or villain permits the audience to choose — and change — allegiances during the play.  Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly creates powerful images of revolutions and parties and other societal minuets.

Mariand Torres, standing in at the performance I saw for star Eden Espinosa, is incandescent as Tamara de Lempicka. No adjectives come close to capturing the power of her acting and her strong, confident voice. She is matched by Andrew Samonsky’s Tadeusz; their feelings for each other are almost palpable. Amber Iman creates an indelible portrait of Rafaela, starting with her introductory song “Don’t Bet Your Heart” (part warning, part challenge). Comic relief comes from Natalie Joy Johnson’s vibrant, don’t-give-a-fuck lesbian Suzy Solidor and George Abud’s sour Marinetti, so easily swayed by his love for the mechanical to admire strong-man Mussolini’s fascist order.

The book by Matt Gould and Carson Kreitzer plays fast and loose with the historical facts of Lempicka’s life, but their score brings life to the tumultuous time between World Wars and the passions and people giving rise to new forms of expression. Highlights from the score include “Unseen”, the opening number that introduces the later-in-life Tamara, “Women”, a bawdy, raucous tribute to sexual freedom, and the afore-mentioned “Don’t Bet Your Heart”. “Pari Will Always Be Pari” satirizes Marinetti’s belief that Paris will never be affected by the era’s financial and political woes. Finally, if one is not careful, Beth Leavel’s Baroness will sear one’s heart with the poignant “Just This Way”, a tribute to the power of love in the face of fate.

The protean scenic design of Riccardo Hernández coupled with the startling lighting design of Bradley King seem like an additional actor in the show. Paloma Young’s costumes evoke the glamor of the between-the-wars period, while Peter Nigrini’s projections evoke the historical events swirling around the charmed Parisian art and nightlife world. Conductor Charity Wicks leads a splendid orchestra, who from their perches in the mezzanine boxes on either side of the audience produce a combination of lush richness and jazzy pep invoking an aural sense of the 1920’s.

Lempicka re-introduces a nearly forgotten major artist of the Art Deco movement. It is an historical record, an adult love story, a folly of romance. It is powerful in both story and music, a tale of all-too-human lives caught up in an impossibly fertile era of human and artistic expression. It is a show worth seeing, and a show that is worth experiencing. I strongly urge you to get to know the artist, the woman, who was Lempicka!

Lempicka is presented at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street in New York. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to lempickamusical.com

UPDATE: A closing notice for Lempicka has been posted. The final performance will be May 19th.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.