Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 13, 2021
Flying Over Sunset. Book by James Lapine. Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by James Lapine. Sets by Beowulf Boritt. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting by Bradley King. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Projections by 59 Productions. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Music direction by Kimberly Grigsby. Choreography by Michelle Dorrance.
The concept of the show, with a book and direction by James Lapine, music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics by Michael Korie, sounds like an urbane variation on the old joke about the minister, priest, and rabbi walking into a bar. Here the trio consists of a scholar, a U.S. ambassador, and a movie star. And when they do meet up, instead of at a bar it's at the Brown Derby restaurant in 1950s Hollywood. Our players are, respectively, author Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton), playwright and conservative politico Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack), and actor Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck). What they have in common is the experimental use of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, more-or-less legal at the time and something of a fad among Southern California intellectuals and celebrities seeking a shortcut to enlightenment. The real-life Huxley, Luce, and Grant were among its users.
The better constructed first act is divided into three episodes, as each of the characters experiences a psychedelic voyage. We begin with Huxley, who has his first mind-expanding trip while shopping at an expansive Rexall drugstore with his wife Maria (Laura Shoop) and his friend and LSD guide, the philosopher Gerald Heard (Robert Sella). The place is so large that it features art books among the typical pharmacy items. Under the influence of the drug, Huxley gazes in childlike awe as a Botticelli print comes to life and sings an operatic aria (beautifully performed by Kanisha Marie Feliciano and Michele Ragusa).
Fade out on Huxley, and move on to Yazbeck's Cary Grant, whose own first LSD trip takes place in a psychiatrist's office. There he encounters none other than himself as a boy, young Archie Leach (Atticus Ware, performing with great skill and aplomb in absolute sync with the debonair Yazbeck). The pair interact by performing a music hall number that includes a genial tap dance sequence that becomes more and more frenetic as Grant grows increasingly agitated when memories of an unhappy childhood come flooding back.
And so we have Act I, basically a well-conceived chamber musical that has been given a sweeping Broadway treatment that works surprisingly well thanks to stellar performances by Hadden-Paton, Cusack, Yazbeck, and the entire ensemble, along with first-class work by the creative team. I might quibble with some contrived bits of basic character-introducing exposition that would have been better dealt with in a couple of paragraphs in the program. But Tom Kitt's score is possibly the best he has written for the stage, and Michael Starobin's orchestrations polish that music to a gleam to match the changes in style and mood. Add to that Michael Korie's lyrics, which are intelligent, witty, and often quite moving; the soaring tap dance choreography by Michelle Dorrance; and Beowulf Boritt's beautiful sets, Toni-Leslie James's costumes, the projections by 59 Productions, Bradley King's lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design. These all deserve to be singled out and collectively praised as a model of collaboration par excellence.
If only James Lapine had wrapped things up in this single act. But maybe he hoped to pull off another Sunday in the Park with George rabbit-out-of-the-hat miracle. That show, with Stephen Sondheim providing the music and lyrics, initially opened for a paying audience at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons with a complete first act and a still-being-written second act. Rough start for what would become a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner when it hit Broadway.
It is, however, hard to see the potential in Act II of Flying Over Sunset. What we get is a half-baked recapitulation of the ideas so beautifully laid out in Act I. Here the three trippers meet up at the Brown Derby and arrange for an LSD weekend at Clare's beach-front Malibu rental, where not much happens, and where the songs are either reprises or consist of such imaginative ditties as the one sung by Yazbeck, with the lyrics "I am a giant penis rocket ship." While it is true that the real Cary Grant said something to this effect in an interview about his LSD experiences, this show could do quite well without it. In the end, after a few more hallucinogenic sequences, everything comes to a quiet halt. If the characters have learned anything, it's that actually there are no shortcuts to enlightenment. Unfortunately, the same could be said of this musical that has lost its way.