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How can a musical about three controversial celebrities as they go on hallucinatory acidic journeys turn out so boring and dismal?
Broadway’s unprecedented fall season, which included both new shows and the reopening of shows closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, now reaches the finish line with the opening night of ‘Flying Over Sunset, âwhich was originally scheduled to premiere on March 12, 2020, the day the 18-month-old Broadway shutdown began.
A new unconventional musical that is historical fiction, “Flying Over Sunset” was inspired by the little-known fact that author Aldous Huxley, movie star Cary Grant and Republican playwright / politician Claire Boothe Luce all have experimented with LSD in the 1950s (when the drug was technically legal).
Just as Tom Stoppard imagined a meeting between the avant-garde Tristan Tzara, political revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and novelist James Joyce in “Travesties”, in “Flying Over Sunset”, director and writer James Lapine imagines Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton, childish and brooding), Grant (Tony Yazbeck, dapper and uncomfortable) and Luce (Carmen Cusack, confident and impatient) meeting at the Brown Derby restaurant, realizing they are all “fellow explorers”, then deciding to take LSD together at Booth’s Beach House in Malibu under the direction of philosopher Gerald Heard (affectionate and sensitive Robert Sella).
In a move that doesn’t connect them with repressed memories, including Grant’s abusive father and her childhood dressed as a girl on the music hall stage, Luce’s loss of her daughter in a car crash and the recent loss of his wife by Huxley to breast cancer.
Sadly, âFlying Over Sunsetâ is an artistic dud – and an almost three-hour chore to sit down. The book is conflict-free (relying rather than introspection and confession), explanatory (filling in details about the politics of the time), repetitive (with the second act more or less mirroring the first act), and odd indulgent (including a sequence in which Grant imagines himself as a “giant penile rocket”). The unexpected highlight of the show ends up being a long tap dance duo between Yazbeck and Atticus Ware (who plays Grant’s youngest Archie Leach).
With the exception of the evocative title track (which is powerfully performed by Cusack), the ethereal score is weighed down by prosaic lyrics and a lack of melody. It often sounds like an inferior counterfeit of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (which also had a book and staging by Lapine and orchestrations by Michael Starobin).
While one can certainly admire the fact that the Lincoln Center Theater is producing an original, unorthodox and thought-provoking new musical by serious Broadway writers, “Flying Over Sunset” (which apparently received several development workshops) didn’t deserve not a full-scale Broadway production. . Rather, the delicate and experimental play would have benefited from the intimacy and reduced commercial expectations of a smaller Off-Broadway venue.
“Flying Over Sunset” might not be a great musical, but it’s a pretty enthusiastic commercial for LSD, which is described as giving both a vivid vision and a spiritual glimpse to the characters. But for better or worse, LSD isn’t available for purchase during intermission.
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65e St., lct.org. Until February 6.