Lempicka ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 15, 2024: We were pushing our way through the excitedly buzzing crowd leaving the Longacre Theatre after just having seen Lempicka, the new musical about Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980). As we found a clearing, my middle-aged daughter surprised me by the enthusiasm of her opinion. “Oh my God, that was soooo good! I wasn’t bored for a minute. I loved the music and everything about it!” My daughter isn’t an easy customer, but during the show I did notice that her vigorous clapping was in sync with most of the audience following each number.

The Cast of “Lempicka”

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 15, 2024: We were pushing our way through the excitedly buzzing crowd leaving the Longacre Theatre after just having seen Lempicka, the new musical about Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980). As we found a clearing, my middle-aged daughter surprised me by the enthusiasm of her opinion. “Oh my God, that was soooo good! I wasn’t bored for a minute. I loved the music and everything about it!” My daughter isn’t an easy customer, but during the show I did notice that her vigorous clapping was in sync with most of the audience following each number.

For me, however, this technically impressive, expertly performed show, with book and music by Matt Gould, and book, lyrics, and original concept by Carson Kreitzer, both making their Broadway debut, never swept me away in the tide of Lempicka’s interwar life as political refugee, bisexual adulteress, and path-breaking art deco painter. Seen earlier at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it can’t avoid the sinkhole of so many other years-spanning biographical shows: canned history, factual alterations, and a panoply of dramatic incidents and ideas unable to translate into a focused dramatic structure lacking a what-happens-next feeling of suspense.

Beth Leavel

Similarly, its music, too much of it a string of familiar-sounding power ballads more reliant on the pyrotechnics of huge, belted notes than heart-clutching melodies, failed to move me, although the singing is glorious and the exceptional Eden Espinosa (Wicked)makes an impact as the glamorous, marcelled blonde painter. Unfortunately, Tamara is forced to express so much of her character through oversized arias that she assumes a bigger-than-life aura that weakens her reality. While such super-reality worked for her gorgeous portraits, it fails to bring her to life on stage.

Lempicka begins and ends with Tamara seen as a stylish old lady in an oversized, straw picture hat sitting on a Los Angeles park bench in 1975, painting an invisible picture on an easel. She asks in song how she wound up here, a place so different from the fame and glamor of her past. This cues her transformation into the young Tamara of 1916, an upper-class Polish girl, from a secular Jewish family, who loves to paint. In St. Petersburg, she weds the first of her two great loves, a wealthy, non-Jewish Pole named Tadeusz Lempicki (a resonant Andrew Samonsky, South Pacific)—Lempicka is the feminine form of Lempicki—although her mother insists she put away her brushes now that she’s a married woman. 

Tamara’s fate then plays out as the show, sometimes relying on projected slogans and newsreel clips, squeezes the complex socio-historical background into digestible sound and visual bites underlined by a singing and dancing ensemble playing multiple minor roles.

Eden Espinosa and the cast of Lempicka.

When the 1917 Russian Revolution breaks out, Tamara and Tadeusz are the parents of a baby girl, Kizette, but the Bolsheviks arrest Tadeusz. Demeaned for her privileged status by the revolutionaries, Tamara manages to free her husband by using her jewels as bribes and sleeping with the commandant. Tadeusz will wait years to discover the facts behind his release.

The family flees by train to Paris, where, to survive, Tamara ignores the jobless Tadeusz’s status-conscious objections and takes on menial work. Awestruck by the city’s beauty and its stylish women, she gradually resumes painting. The wealthy Baron and Baroness Kuffner (Nathaniel Stampley, Paradise Alley,and Beth Leavel, The Drowsy Chaperone), he part Jewish, admire her work, and encourage her to study at l’academie de Beaux Arts under their Italian friend, the poet and artist Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944; an over-animated George Abud, The Band’s Visit). 

Marinetti was the fascistic theorist of the Futurist movement, which worshipped the sleek efficiency and power of the modern machine. When he enters, he declaims, “Line, Color, Form/means shit to me/I didn’t survive the Great War/to Decorate someone’s living room.” But, while Futurism did have some influence on Lempicka, her principal mentors were Maurice Denis and André Lhote, neither of whom figure in the show. Marinetti, who plays far too large a role in the musical, seems to have been chosen mainly to depict the troubled relationship between contemporary art and politics. (For a good précis of the range of Lempicka’s influences and achievements, necessarily omitted by the show, click here.)

Amber Iman and Eden Espinosa.

After World War I ends, Tamara’s art progresses. Marinetti mocks both the idea of a woman being a great painter (“too much Feeling”—“You need to be  . . a Machine”) and her focus on female nudes. In song, they debate the purpose of art, Tamara repeating his indefinite mantra, “We do not control the world/ We control one flat rectangle of canvas.” 

Tamara discovers Paris’s seedy cabaret life, and instantly discovers her lesbian side when she’s attracted to sexy, worldly chanteuse Rafaella (Amber Iman, Soul Doctor, memorable), singing “You bet your life/Don’t bet your heart” at an illegal gambling joint hosted by blonde-helmeted Suzy Solidor (a potent Natalie Joy Johnson, Kinky Boots). The show’s several cabaret scenes, with their decadent patrons partying amid the growing fascist threat, serve only to emphasize how much Lempicka pales when compared, as it must be, to Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret in depicting a similar environment.

George Abud

Tamara has her first group show, where she’s signed her work Lempicki, thinking a man’s name will improve sales. Marinetti finds her paintings skillful but unoriginal, and we have more talk about art’s raison d’être, Marinetti—his disillusion ignited by the war—disputing Tamara’s humanism by proclaiming his Futurist, rule-breaking, machine-oriented, automobile-loving obsessions—“ENOUGH OF FLESH.” 

At home, Tadeusz laments his lost heritage and spousal uselessness. In her new studio, Tamara paints Kizette (Zoe Glick, Frozen, ingratiating), who’s curious about her Jewish roots, which Tamara plays down: “You know we’re raising you to be a perfect heathen,” while telling her to be proud of being a descendant of Tadeusz’s aristocratic heritage.  Tamara says you must show only what you want people to see: “Never let them see your brushstrokes.”

Rafaela, a self-proclaimed “whore,” becomes Tamara’s nude model (although none of Lempicka’s paintings show a woman of color, which is how the role is cast). In a frankly sensual scene, the women become lovers. Tadeusz, feeling guilty, brings his wife flowers, and she, her own guilt rising, sings of Rafaela, comparing the difference between a real woman and a painting.

Baron and Baroness Kuffer admire Tamara’s unconventional portrait of Rafaela, signed “Lempicka,” which they see as a career changer. The baroness warns the artist to be cautious—“They will come for you”—because of rising antisemitism. Her husband, she notes, is Jewish (in actuality, only partly).

Amber Iman

In the wryly satirical “Pari Will Always Be Pari,” Marinetti, backed by projected words and images, touches on the postwar optimism of 1926, the stock market crash of 1929, and the Reichstag fire of 1933. Meanwhile, the “new woman”—who “strides through the world” and “drives a motorcar”—makes her presence known in fashion, politics (the vote!), and Tamara’s portraits. The epitome of that new woman, Tamara, grows ever more successful and prosperous, putting her money into jewelry should flight be necessary. Marinetti is finally impressed by Lempicka’s scandalously decadent paintings of amazonian women, whose market value Tamara appreciates. 

Tadeusz wants to move to Poland where a job awaits, but Tamara’s career requires her to remain in Paris, where she’s painting her soon-famous “Adam and Eve” for the International Exhibition. Suzy opens her revolutionary lesbian bar, Le Monocle, where payoffs insure that the clientele will be let alone—“Liberté, Égalité, Lesbianité!” Tamara is treated as a celebrity, yet insists her relationship with the less discreet Rafaela remain secret to protect her career.

Eden Espinosa 

Rafaela disregards Tamara’s advice and turns up at the exhibition, where an encounter with Tadeusz leads to jealous tension before Tamara angrily discovers them there. Embarrassing complications threaten when the baron and baroness enter, but Marinetti’s presence in a military uniform—he supports Italy’s Mussolini—shifts our attention to the growing hostility between the fascists and communists. Marinetti now sneers at both Tamara’s art and what he deems her public display of lesbianism, things guaranteed to make her a target of Hitler’s distaste for “degenerate” art: “You will be erased.”

Tadeusz demands that his wife leave for Warsaw with him, but she insists he stay, which leads to her confession of how she saved him from Bolshevik imprisonment. Rafaela, unwilling to remain Tamara’s hidden lover, demands she leave Tadeusz, and abandons her when she won’t. But it’s too late, and Tadeusz is finished with her. Suzy’s bar is attacked by Marinetti’s Blackshirts. The baroness, dying, asks the depressed Tamara to paint her, noting that when the time comes, she should marry the baron, who loves her. This comes from left field, as no hint of a romantic relationship between Kuffer and Tamara has been shown.

A theatrical moment later, we return to the park bench in 1975, where Tamara, now a baroness, receives a ghostly visitor as she wraps up the intervening years in a phrase or three, her forgotten art now rediscovered and valued in the millions, as the world keeps spinning, like a giant machine.

Eden Espinosa and Andrew Samonsky.

Director Rachel Chavkin’s (Hadestown) dynamic production, aided by Raja Feather Kelly’s well-oiled, machine-like choreography, makes excellent use of a striking set by Riccardo Hernández evocative of Russian Constructivism blended with the girders of the Eiffel Tower, the whole alluding to Marinetti’s Futurist ideas. The Erector set ambience is enhanced by strips of colored lighting under the magical control of lighting artist Bradley King. Peter Nigrini’s projections, which incorporate many of Lempicka’s renowned paintings, make an indelible contribution. Paloma Young’s brilliant costumes bring to life the period’s fashions, both haute couture and louche sensuality, Tamara’s personal wardrobe suggesting the structured garments and silky fabrics that leap out of her paintings. 

Lempicka is more than just a biomusical about a daring, protofeminist, sexually transgressive Eastern European artist who broke glass ceilings to earn success, a woman who survived revolution, war, and divorce to rediscover fame and riches before passing away in a foreign country. At its heart it’s a debate between competing visions of art, that of the avant-garde modernism represented by Cubism and Futurism, among other isms, and the more accessible, yet still progressive Art Deco vision seen in Tamara de Lempicka’s powerful portraits. It’s too bad the result ends up being more artsy-fartsy than dramatically or musically compelling.

Lempicka ***1/2
Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman