The label “difficult woman” is meant to be an insult. Still, as the musical LEMPICKA about artist Tamara de Lempicka at the La Jolla Playhouse shows, difficult women and their talents should be celebrated (preferably with show tunes and choreography) because their stories are always interesting. This musical is bold, dynamic, contemporary, and offers a compelling look at a unique artist as she learns about herself, art, and love.
LEMPICKA explores the life story of Tamara de Lempicka, who went from a young wife and mother to a sought-after if scandalous artist. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Lempicka (played by Eden Espinosa) is forced to find and barter for the release of her husband Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) who has been imprisoned during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. After securing his freedom at a great personal cost, they flee to Paris with their baby to create new life.
While Paris offers the opportunity through hard work, Lempicka finds herself scrubbing floors while her formerly aristocratic husband feels sorry for himself and sulks before finally taking a job at a bank. Lempicka had loved painting as a young woman and decides to hone this skill by attending the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. There she learns and refines her skills and her perspective under artist Marinetti (George Abud) while also discovering some other facets of her sexuality and the life she wants to build out of the ashes of the revolution.
Lempicka’s single-minded drive that helped her escape Russia, and work to build a new life in Paris, helps her define her colorful and sensual “soft cubism” style that allows her to celebrate “what women can be.”
Espinosa as Lempicka is bold, with fantastic vocals, sharp focus, and the ability to make this woman feel both like a detached observer who creates art, a possessive if emotionally obtuse mother/wife/lover, but also someone who feels deeply.
Iman is compelling as Rafaela; brings rich and velvety vocals in songs that range from jazzy nightclub to emotionally vulnerable with equal skill. Samonsky has a great voice, and a commanding presence, and is excellent as Tadeusz, which is an achievement because as written the character doesn’t seem to have much depth or interesting nuance.
Which makes the love triangle between Lempicka, her husband Tadeusz, and Rafaela not feel as high stakes as it needs to support the second act.
Abud as Marinetti brings a wonderfully sharp and edgy performance and Johnson is funny and confident as the nightclub owner. Both of them have numbers that liven up the show and kick-start the energy when it starts to feel like it’s slowing down.
Chan is charming as the Baron, and as the Baroness, Ritz is elegant and understanding and also has a standout solo in the second act.
The book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and the book and music by Matt Gould start the show off with quiet contemplation and then jump immediately into a flurry of action that showcases the forever evolving life and loves of Lempicka.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin and with choreography by Raja Feather Kelly the show is dynamic and exciting, with lots of bold music, innovative staging, gorgeous costumes and projections, and powerhouse vocals.
Lempicka’s energetic and bold artistic perspective are reflected in the art deco scenic design by Ricardo Hernandez, lighting by Bradley King, gorgeous costumes by Anita Yavich, and potent and dizzying projections by Peter Nigrini.
The show is also close to three hours as it covers a lot of information, action, and historic events. Additional editing of some songs, plot points, and discussions would go a long way to tightening up the run time and avoiding some slow points as certain questions and contemplations are brought up in repetition.
How To Get Tickets
LEMPICKA is playing through July 24th at the La Jolla Playhouse.
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