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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

I must remember, paint first, devour after. — Lempicka
Eden Espiniosa as Lempicka.
Lempicka, a musical world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, spans forty years in the tempestuous life of Tamara De Lempicka. It is the somewhat true story of the title character. Born in Poland, she rose through marriage and determination to notoriety as a portrait painter and flaming art figure in between-the-wars Paris.

This is a larger than life woman and three hours of music by Matt Gould, book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer try to do justice to the sweeping expanse of the time and social movements that toss Lempicka’s life into disarray at every turn.

As a bride, Tamara, (Eden Espinosa) and her husband Tadeusz (Andrew Samonsky) sing exultantly of their new life — "Now you will be the bride happily ever after. It’s our time." He reassures her of their future serenity that "nothing changes here," while a chorus of dancing serfs transmits otherwise to the naive couple. The refrain of "Our time" will be reprised at every juncture of change; each succeeding political movement sweeps the couple into a maelstrom of chaos as everything changes all of the time and not for the best.

A spectacle of light, sound and costumes commandeers the Willamstown Stage with an Evita-like exposition. The actors enter and exit through exposed wings without pause so there are very fast-paced, seamless scene changes. Against the huge blank space of Riccardo Hernandez’s set, rolling platforms of scenery and rovers (single-stand spotlights) wheel on and off with a frenzy that mirrors the world in a state of flux. Dancers become revolutionaries, black shirts, reporters, as every member of the ensemble performs double-duty with chameleon-like changes.

After Tamara sells jewelry, then herself, to rescue Tadeusz along with their daughter, they escape Russia. He, ungrateful and morose, sneers at a bank job even as white Russian princes drive taxis. Tamara waitresses to earn money for food and art supplies.

Just as she had set sights on a wealthy noble husband, Tamara now struggles to become a successful portrait painter, but with a bold art deco vision. Working hard to support her family and change her world, she acquires a taste for female models. Rafaela, part whore, part muse, who introduces Tamara to the demimonde of Parisian society where every manner of debauchery entices her heightened awareness.

In a beautiful duet —"Stillness. . .forever stillness"— Tamara and Rafaela begin their affair. Sharing the wild side together, they visit a dive owned by Suzi Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson) and enjoy the swinging, so to speak, scene. There is an especially notable Josephine Baker (Grace Potter) song and dance number.

Tamara’s success rises along with tensions with her husband and then Rafaela. All the while rumblings are heard from Nazis, fascists and communist agitators. "Boots against the pavement...History repeats...madmen ascend" sends Tamara into ever-frenetic painting as she warns, "I’ve seen this before...There will be no place safe..." to disbelieving ears.

The parallels drawn between intolerant, bombastic rhetoric of then and now are pointed and even the artist Manetti falls prey to the jingoistic tirades washing over the world. Tamara’s presence saves her, but once again she will have to start over in a new and confusing world. She is a survivor, but at what cost? A strong woman in a world that is not ready.

The almost three hours can barely cover the "spinning" sensation that Tamara sings about. This play needs some judicious trimming if it is to move to another venue for a longer run.

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Book and Lyrics by Carson Kreitzer; Music by Matt Gould
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreographer: Raja Feather Kelly
Music Director: Charity Wicks
Music Supervisor and Vocal Arranger: Remy Kurs
Cast: Eden Espinosa (Tamara de Lempicka) Andrew Samonsky (Tadeusz Lempicki) Carmen Cusack (Rafaela) Nathaniel Stampley (The Baron) Rachel Tucker (The Baroness) Steven Rattazzi (Marinetti) Natalie Joy Johnson (Suzy Solidor) Alexandra Templer (Kizette) Ensemble: Justin Gregory Lopez, Azudi Onyejekwe, Michael McCorry Rose, Tim Creavin, Grace Porter, Sav Souza, Kay Trinidad
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg
Hair and Wig Design: Leah Loukas
Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard
Running time: 3 hours, one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage , Williamstown MA
Opening: 8/20/2018; Closing: 8/1/2018
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 26, 2018 performance

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