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The Whirlwind Life of a Subversive Art Deco Icon in ‘Lempicka’ at La Jolla Playhouse

ArtsThe Whirlwind Life of a Subversive Art Deco Icon in ‘Lempicka’ at La Jolla Playhouse

Cast of "Lempicka"The cast of “Lempicka” at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Matthew Murphy

She lived a wild tempestuous, roller coaster life. Sometimes wealthy, sometimes poor. Both famous and forgotten. An Art Deco artist, iconoclast and provocateur, a tastemaker and groundbreaker, the toast of Paris, New York and Hollywood, who died in obscurity in Mexico, her ashes, at her request, cast into the live volcano Popocatépetl.

And now, 42 years after her death, she rises again, phoenix-like, with a new musical bearing her name, and her paintings fetching tens of millions at high-end auction houses.

She was Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), born Tamara Rosalia Gurwik-Górska in Warsaw Poland, to a wealthy Jewish lawyer and a Russian socialite.

She met her aristocratic Polish-lawyer husband, Tadeusz Lempicki in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and married him  a year later, when she was 18.

In 1917, when he was arrested by the secret police, she made the ultimate sacrifice to get him out. They escaped the Russian Revolution and ended up as refugees in Paris. In 1939, as the Nazi invasion threatened, she once again, always cognizant of her Jewish heritage, feared for her life and escaped to the United States.

Again and again, she had to re-invent herself. “There’s a certain freedom in losing everything,” she says. “Forget what came before.”  “The century’s different, so why shouldn’t I be?”

All of this (and much more) makes its way into the new Broadway-bound musical, “Lempicka,” having its West coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.

An earlier version of the piece premiered in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. That show was scheduled for a 2020 debut at the Playhouse, but Covid forced a change of plans.

So, here we are, with a much-revised incarnation of “Lempicka,” which though it was conceived by playwright/lyricist Carson Kreitzer around 2010, before she met composer and co-librettist Matt Gould, seems closely related to Ellis Avery’s 2012 historical novel, “The Last Nude.” The book, set primarily in 1927 Paris, is narrated by the young 17 year-old runaway, Rafaela Fano, who was Lempicka’s lover and muse.

Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, whose beautifully stylized work was last seen locally in “The Royale” in 2016 at The Old Globe, and the recent touring production of “Hadestown,” has been attached to the project since 2014.

Lempicka (Eden Espinosa, with powerhouse vocals, especially in her deep, rich, alto range) was a maverick, a radical. Not the most devoted of wives or mothers, she led a flagrantly hedonistic life, hobnobbing with high rollers and engaging in multiple affairs, with both men and women.

She started painting seriously in Paris, to support the family when her husband couldn’t seem to adapt (“What is a man without a country?” he laments). Her second husband was the Baron Raoul Kuffner (local stalwart Victor E. Chan), a marriage that gave her the moniker “The Baroness with a Brush.”

Although this musical offers a rough outline of the arc of her eventful life, it focuses especially on the energy and delirium that was Jazz Age Paris in the 1920s, and the sexual empowerment of women that birthed.

We see Rafaela as a sometime prostitute and cabaret singer (magnificent Amber Iman, who brings a quiet grandeur to the frenetic piece, with her sultry presence and stunning voice. From July 12-24 Ximone Rose will take over the role). As Lempicka’s muse, lover and obsession, Rafaela is resented by Lempicka’s husband (Andrew Samonsky) and daughter Kizette (Jordan Tyson).

We hear a bit about Lempicka’s art (“Line, color, form, shadow and light,” reminiscent of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine 1985 musical, “Sunday in the Park with George”). She looks at a person and sees color: “cobalt, Prussian blue, cerulean, sapphire… crimson, scarlet, vermilion, rose madder.” But we don’t see much of her art (rights issues?).

We meet Lempicka’s teacher/harshest critic/antagonist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  (George Abud), who tells her “We have to disturb, disrupt the world.” The real Marinetti was founder of the Futurist movement, which decried the past and celebrated the modern, mechanical world. (He was also co-author of the Fascist Manifesto). He turns into a Mussolini-loving black-shirt monster, reminding Lempicka about Hitler’s notion of “degenerate art” — “Jews and queers. You will be erased. The future is now and it is mine.” In the musical, he also shares Rafaela, much to Lempicka’s chagrin.

When she sees the starched, uniformed Marinetti, Lempicka knows the party is over and she has to leave Paris, where she’d introduced Rafaela to a hidden speakeasy-like bar/cabaret, Le Monocle, whose motto is “Liberté, ‘Egalité, Lesbianité.” The (notorious) place is run by singer Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson) with whom Lempicka also had an affair, though not in this show.

We see how the artist struggles for acceptance in a man’s world; we briefly see her depression and attempted suicide.

But we don’t ever really get inside her head, or get a sense of what she really thinks and feels. We’re too caught up in the turbulence of the time and the production.

Chavkin is known for her multisensory sensibility, but she’s really outdone herself this time, thanks to her design team and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly.

The intense focus on revolution, change and the future are represented in the angular lines and revolving set (Riccardo Hernandez), neon and flashing lights (Bradley King) and ever-changing projections (Peter Negrini), both archival and artistic. It’s a phantasmagoria of movement more than art.

Even the sensuality is more hinted at than shown. We see more Art Deco in the beautiful costumes (Anita Yavich) and production design than in Lempicka’s work — though the icy cubist/neoclassical mix of her famous self-portrait, “Tamara in a Green Bugatti,” from 1929) dominates the set before the proceedings begin.

The score, excellently played by a 10-piece orchestra under the baton of Charity Wicks, echoes the overall esthetic: relentlessly high energy, high-volume, highly belted (all that often making it hard to discern the lyrics). The metallic, rock-infused music is insistent and unremitting, only mitigated by Rafaela’s bluesy, scatting moments of welcome calm (“Stillness,” “Bracelet”).

There are some stunning stage pictures, and anthemic show-stoppers (“Love is for Fools,” “Woman Is”).

But with nearly three hours at a frenzied, feverish pace, the show could use more revising, condensing — and heart. And far more depth of character. Right now, the piece has the cold, hard surface of her paintings. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it keeps us at an emotional remove.

This is a whirlwind tour of a subversive life, but it needs to breathe more, and go deeper inside this driven non-conformist, a serial survivor who was hellbent on doing things her way, being seen and being remembered.

Her prominent collectors include Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand. Maybe now, you’ll remember her, too. 

  • Lempicka: A New Musical,” a West coast premiere, runs at the La Jolla Playhouse (Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive) through July 24
  • Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Tickets ($25-$95) can be obtained at 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse org
  • Running time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
  • Note: While construction continues, there are shuttles from the distanced parking lot.
  • COVID policy: Masks are required indoors

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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