The label “difficult woman” is meant to be an insult. Yet, as the musical LEMPICKA about artist Tamara de Lempicka at the La Jolla Playhouse shows, tough 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 fascinating look at a unique performer as she learns about herself, art and love.
LEMPICKA explores the life story of Tamara de Lempicka, who grew from a young wife and mother to a sought-after albeit outrageous 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 was imprisoned during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. After getting his freedom at great personal cost, they flee to Paris with their baby to create a new life.
As Paris offers opportunity through hard work, Lempicka finds herself scrubbing the floors while her once-aristocratic husband feels self-pity and sulks before finally taking a job at a bank. Lempicka loved to paint in his youth and decided to perfect this talent by attending the Academy of the Grande Chaumière. There, she learns and hones her skills and perspective from artist Marinetti (George Abud) while discovering other facets of her sexuality and the life she wants to build from the ashes of revolution.
Lempicka meets model Rafaela (Amber Iman) at a club run by lesbian nightclub owner Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson) and quickly falls in love with Rafaela who becomes her muse.
Lempicka’s strong will that helped her flee Russia and work to build a new life in Paris, helps her define her colorful and sensual style of “soft cubism” which allows her to celebrate “what women can be”.
Lempicka also finds a patron of his art in the Baron (Victor E. Chan) and his wife the Baroness (Jacquelyn Ritz) who allows him to continue to pursue his artistic style.
Espinosa as Lempicka is bold, with a fantastic voice, sharp focus, and the ability to make this woman feel like both a detached observer creating art, a possessive but possessive mother/wife/lover. emotionally obtuse, but also someone who feels deeply.
Iman is compelling as Rafaela; brings rich, velvety vocals to songs that range from jazzy nightclub to emotionally vulnerable with equal proficiency. Samonsky has a great voice and commanding presence, and is excellent as Tadeusz, which is a feat as the character doesn’t seem to have much depth or interesting nuances.
Which makes the love triangle between Lempicka, her husband Tadeusz, and Rafaela not feel as important as it needs to sustain the second act.
Abud as Marinetti brings a wonderfully sharp and edgy performance and Johnson is funny and confident as the nightclub owner. Both have numbers that liven up the show and kickstart the energy when it starts to slow down.
Chan is charming as a baron and as a baroness, Ritz is elegant and understanding and also has a remarkable solo in the second act.
Carson Kreitzer’s book and lyrics and Matt Gould’s book and music begin the show with quiet contemplation, then immediately jump into a flurry of action that showcases Lempicka’s ever-evolving life and loves.
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 a powerful voice.
The energy and reflection of Lempicka’s energetic and daring artistic perspective is reflected in the art deco stage design of Ricardo Hernandez, the lighting of Bradley King, the magnificent costumes of Anita Yavich and the powerful and dizzying projections of Peter Nigrini. .
The show is also almost three hours long as it covers a lot of historical news, actions and events. Additional editing of some songs, plot points, and discussions would go a long way in reducing the running time and avoiding some slow points as some questions and thoughts are brought up on repeat.
How to get tickets
LEMPICKA plays until July 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Eden Espinosa is Tamara de Lempicka at La Jolla Playhouse. (Matthew Murphy)
Amber Iman as Rafaela in La Jolla Playhouse’s LEMPICKA (Rich Soublet II)
Andrew Samonsky as Tadeusz and Eden Espinosa as Tamara de Lempicka in La Jolla Playhouse (Matthew Murphy)