By Stanford Friedman
What happens when a team of mega-talents attempt a musical about microdosing? Well, in the case of Lincoln Center Theater’s Flying Over Sunset, the result is a long, not strange enough trip with as many faults as there are stellar components. The production features the best tap dance solo to be found on Broadway, but Michelle Dorrance’s choreography otherwise, while of a singular vision, feels out of step with the gliding pace of the show established by director James Lapine. There are ravishing sets by the brilliant Beowulf Boritt, clever costumes (Toni-Leslie James) and strong performances throughout, but they are in service of music by Tom Kitt that is lilting to the point of stifling, and a book by Lapine so overloaded with biography and exposition that it is no wonder its characters are seeking escape.
On paper, the play’s 1950s era construct seems delightfully crazed and crazily random. Take Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton), Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack) and Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck), put them on a patio along with the philosopher sherpa Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), feed them all some LSD and let the sparks fly. On stage, the difficulties become apparent. Though the get-together is fictional, much of the drug use and backstory are reality-based. Lapine’s allegiance to the facts, and apparent need to let no fact go unmentioned, is a mood killer. More problematic, the three main characters, who are self-absorbed to begin with, turn even more inward when stoned, putting the brakes on any kind of dramatic or comedic tension between them. At least they have the civility to hallucinate in sequential order rather than all at once.
The first act is all set-up as, one by one, each character finds better living through chemistry. First Huxley, who gets high at a Rexall drug store in Hollywood, where a book of Botticelli paintings comes alive, giving us the first of many gorgeous screen projections by 59 Productions, and showing off the silky charms of Hadden-Paton. Next comes Grant, doing the deed in a Beverly Hills psychiatrist’s office. Already at odds with the ghost of his childhood, made flesh in a fantastic Broadway debut by teen actor Atticus Ware, the two are soon trying to tap their troubles away, leading to that amazing tap solo, by Yazbeck, atop the psychiatrist’s desk. Luce meanwhile, is dropping acid out in Connecticut with Heard, but soon enough they end up in L.A., making cute with the lads and arranging their group trip.
Midway into their Act Two encounter, Huxley proclaims, “We didn’t take LSD so we could sit around and tell sad stories about our mothers.” It’s a very meta bit of dialogue since much of the show is precisely that. As a child, Grant thought his mother deceased, only to learn later that his father was a liar. His abandonment issues lead up to a wild sequence that hints of what the show would have been had it traveled a campier route. He imagines himself dancing with Sophia Loren (delightfully embodied by Emily Pynenburg), then blasts off in a Freudian tune called “Rocket Ship,” with less than subtle lyrics like, “I am a giant penis!”
Luce lost her mother in a car crash, then six years later, her daughter died the same way. This trauma leads to the show’s musical highlight, a stirring 11:00 number called “How?” that Cusack nails while stressed out in a hallucinogenic heaven. But it’s a quick downhill fall from there, with the three men singing a song that is washed away by the engrossing projection of ocean waves surrounding them, and a finale that tries, too late, to convince us that through their introspections, they have come together in a chemical bond.
Flying Over Sunset – Book by James Lapine. Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by James Lapine.
WITH: Carmen Cusack (Luce), Harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley), and Tony Yazbeck (Grant) with Kanisha Marie Feliciano (Ann / Judith), Nehal Joshi (Dr. Harris / Cary’s Father), Emily Pynenburg (Rosalia / Sophia), Michele Ragusa (Austin / Handmaiden), Robert Sella (Gerald Heard), Laura Shoop (Maria Huxley), and Atticus Ware (Archie Leach).
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 Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St. 212-239-6200, https://flyingoversunset.com. Proof of vaccination required. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes; Through February 6.