By Sarah Downs
When Alan Jay Lerner announced he was adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel Lolita for the musical stage, his friends must have wondered what he was thinking. Seeing the results of Lerner’s efforts, I want to know what he was smoking.
A great novel does not necessarily lend itself to adaptation just because it is a masterpiece, especially not a really weird, creepy novel. In setting the story of a man obsessed with a prepubescent teen to music, you have two choices, neither of them ideal. If you stick to the story you risk writing a truly skeevy musical about a pedophile. If you dance around the motivating topic you leave a gaping hole in the center of your narrative. Lolita, My Love tries to strike a balance between the two and ends up kind of nowhere.
There’s a reason this show closed out of town. The unsavory material resists rehabilitation. In addition to which, the musical is heavy, imbalanced and way too long. There are only so many reprises of the same song one can take. John Barry’s music also does not suit the material. Stunningly, in a first act that lasts an hour and a half, Lerner makes his way through maybe the first third of the book. We get to speed along a bit more in Act II, as we follow Humbert Humbert and Lolita on their cross country jaunt. The anxiety ramps up as we chase the story inexorably to its sad conclusion, but the show still doesn’t get fully off the ground.
The cast of the York Theatre Company’s staged reading does its best, but they cannot shift this material into second gear. Robert Sella as Humbert Humbert projects the right kind of tense, sociopathic energy, balancing it with excellent comic timing and a good singing voice, but when a script asks you to start at 10, where are you to go? (Move over, Brett Kavanaugh.) As the doomed and desperate widow Charlotte Haze, Jessica Tyler Wright gives a heartfelt, humorous performance, but as the First Act wore on, she began almost to chew the scenery in a valiant effort to make the material come alive. Yet with all of this, we see very little interaction between her and Lolita (a willowy Caitlin Cohn), avoiding the novel’s fertile emotional ground of a mother who wants the man who wants her daughter.
George Abud as Clare Quilty, a broadly drawn, irredeemable character, manages to inject some spirit into the action with his shamelessness and excess. With perfect 70’s grooviness, Abud celebrates debauchery with every note he sings. Unfortunately, his tempo is the exception rather than the rule in a production that suffers from stasis. Even with only 30 hours of rehearsal, director Emily Maltby could have done a little more to get people moving.
Lolita, My Love does have a couple of good songs. The opening number, with its haunting echoes of “Lo, Lola, Lolita” from an unseen, underutilized chorus sets an eerie mood, which is immediately shattered by a lights-up, comedy bit with Humbert glibly confessing the murder of Quilty. He’s quite the murderous bon vivant. This abrupt change of energy is jarring to say the least, and represents one of many lost opportunities to embrace the creepy and explore the novel’s depth. Humbert’s wistful ballad “In the Broken Promise Land of 15” teases us with hidden secrets, echoing the sorrowful poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe. Unfortunately Lerner again wastes the opportunity to follow that song into Humbert’s twisted heart.
We’ve seen musicals take the teeth out of good material — the crackling dialogue of The Philadelphia Story transformed into the banal High Society or worse yet, Applause the pale shadow of All About Eve — defiling the original. Ironically, with material like Lolita, you have to pull some canines in order to avoid the original defiling the adaptation. So, in the end, what’s the point? Lolita should be an opera, not musical theater. It demands texture and depth. As a musical, it is impossible to find the balance between weighty material and palatable composition. How to avoid vulgarity while maintaining the integrity of the story? That precarious balance is something Lolita, My Love is doomed not to find.
Lolita, My Love, with music by John Barry and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, as edited by Erik Haagensen; directed by Emily Maltby, with music direction by Deniz Cordell; featuring George Abud as Clare Quilty, Caitlin Cohn as Dolores “Lolita” Haze, Robert Sella as Humbert Humbert, Thursday Farrar as Dr. June Ray, and Jessica Tyler Wright as Charlotte Haze; with Becca Fox, Hanako Greensmith, Victoria Huston-Elem, Jay Aubrey Jones, Kennedy Kanagawa, Max Meyers, Mark Montague, and Analise Scarpaci. Lighting Design by Stephen O’Shea, Production Manager Kevin Maloof, Production Stage Manager Chris Steckel.
The limited engagement of Lolita, My Love concludes Sunday afternoon, March 3, 2019 at 2:30PM at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Run time 2 hrs., 45 minutes including 15 minute intermission.