God, what a time to be a musical theatre fan if you’re a sapphic seeking representation on stage. Already this summer we’ve had one show become a smash regionally, Jagged Little Pill; another show hit Broadway, the exuberantly queer Head Over Heels; and have one coming in the fall, The Prom, which promises to be adorable and funny in equal measure. And just concluding a run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in western Massachusetts is the crown jewel of shows I’ve seen in tryouts this summer, Matt Gould and Carson Kreitzer’s epic ode to one woman’s art and love of women.
This expansive show follows the life and work of Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish-born painter who fled to Paris with her Russian husband to escape the Russian Revolution. In Paris, as her husband works in a money exchange center, Lempicka gradually becomes an in demand painter with her chilly yet life-filled art deco portraits. As the musical follows her artistic journey, we follow her personal journey too: Lempicka falls in love with the street-smart prostitute Rafaella, her model and muse, and their relationship is the beating heart of the musical.
Eden Espinosa, best known for her turns as Elphaba and Maureen in Wicked and Rent, finally gets a chance to show the theatre world she’s more than just a replacement for Idina Menzel. Espinosa’s Tamara is a force of nature. As she sings about her craft and how she sees the world as a painter and as a woman, you feel her intense passion for her work. Her acting and chemistry with every person on stage is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Espinosa’s Lempicka has Evita’s ambition and vocal firepower, and Georges Seurat’s commitment to his work.
Rafaella is played by the wonderfully chameleonic Carmen Cusack. Last seen on Broadway in her Tony nominated turn as Alice Murphy in Bright Star (gone too soon,) Cusack plays a lovable minx of a woman who wants to be appreciated in society as more than just a streetwalker or an artist’s model. Her chemistry with Eden is off the charts. The duet the two of them share while Lempicka paints Rafaella for the first time, “Stillness,” is stunning. Her act two duet with Lempicka’s husband at an art gallery is complex and fascinating.
Besides the two stellar leading ladies, the rest of the cast delivers terrific performances. Andrew Samonsky is charming and sympathetic as Tamara’s husband Tadeusz; Rachel Tucker (yes there are indeed three Elphabas in this show!) is in gorgeous voice as a Baroness who commissions a portrait from Tamara; Steven Rattazzi is manically interesting as Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist art movement in Europe; Alexandra Templer is sweet and gangly as Tamara’s daughter Kizette; and Natalie Joy Johnson as a sassy lesbian nightclub owner who is friends with Rafaella and her crowd.
One of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever had in a theatre came at the act one finale. After Lempicka paints Rafaella for the first time, they go to a bar in a seedy part of Paris, where the two of them realize they have feelings for each other. The two women kiss, run back to the studio, have a wild night of sex, and the act concludes with Rafaella asleep and Lempicka on the balcony, belting to the heavens one of the most life-affirming songs I have ever heard in a musical, “Woman Is.” I had tears in my eyes the entire song. I expect this song to be in every belter’s repertoire someday, but Eden’s performance of the song is definitive. About a month before I saw Lempicka, I looked on Youtube to see if there were any videos about the show or any songs from the score out there to listen to ahead of time. That was when I discovered “Woman Is”, sung by both Shoshana Bean (the original Lempicka in workshops) and composer Matt Gould. I was already a fan of Gould, the composer of the excellent but underrated ART musical Witness Uganda which transferred off-Broadway a few years back under the name Invisible Thread. I was not prepared for the emotions hearing this song for the first time. It encapsulates in song form exactly what it feels like as a woman (or in my case, a nonbinary lesbian) to be in love with another woman, and how alive that feeling makes one feel. The first time I heard this song, I wept, then immediately texted a link to my girlfriend. “Woman is beautiful,” indeed.
Gould’s lush score and Carson Kreitzer’s powerful book and lyrics are served well by Rachel Chavkin’s ever-moving and specific direction, Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, and Bradley King’s striking lighting design. The bare canvas-like set with roll-on set pieces felt appropriately artistic. The creative elements combined with a perfect cast made for a Broadway-ready experience. I’m gutted the Williamstown engagement of this musical will have closed by the time of publication. I’d see it again and again if I could. Material and performances this excellent deserve to go to New York fully intact.
Art isn’t easy, and Lempicka proves to be a stirring and complex gem. I look forward to its future, wherever it may go.
(Carmen Cusack and Eden Espinosa photo from Playbill)