What were they on when they cleared this show for take-off? That cloudy thought pops up regularly during Flying Over Sunset, the movie-star handsome but exasperating Lincoln Center musical that imagines celebrated writer Aldous Huxley, actor Cary Grant, and author Clare Boothe Luce uniting to drop acid together in the 1950s. Sure, it’s original, but that goes just so far. Waiting for an insightful takeaway is akin to sitting on the tarmac for 2 3/4 hours only to be deplaned. The trippy spectacle of an LSD-high Grant singing, “I am a giant penis rocket ship! Zoom! Kaboom!” — yes, really — can’t keep this from being a trek to nowhere.
It’s dispiriting considering the proven potency of the creative team. Writer and director James Lapine’s sensitivity and perceptiveness have shown through in Sunday in the Park with George. Composer Tom Kitt’s music gave Next to Normal its pulse. Lyricist Michael Korie’s work in Grey Gardens is as evocative as it comes. That was then. This is now.
The production is a head-scratcher from the get-go as the ensemble parades single file, doing loop-de-loops around the stage. Footsteps are loudly amplified, presumably to suggest the heightened sensory impact of LSD, but who knows. What’s clear is that the actors go in circles and so does the show. The second half restates what’s already been said in the first act, but with splashier visual effects. Songs drift in and out, etching vaporous impressions while they’re at it. The pretty title song emerges as the most vivid.
Three appealing leads make the most of what they’ve got, including Harry Hadden-Paton (My Fair Lady), who plays Brave New World author Huxley; Tony Yazbeck (On the Town) as film icon Grant; and Carmen Cusack (Bright Star) as playwright and ambassador Luce. A quick Google search reveals that the late celebrated figures individually experimented with LSD.
In a drugstore, alongside his ailing wife Maria (Laura Shoop) and gay friend Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), who’s essentially an LSD docent, Huxley turns on and sees visions from a beloved Botticelli painting. Grant, reeling from a shaky marriage, experiments with the hallucinogen at a therapist’s office and encounters his dad (Nehal Joshi) and his troubled young self Archie Leach (Atticus Ware). At her home, Luce takes a dose and envisions her daughter (Kanisha Marie Feliciano) and mom (Michele Ragusa), who each died in car wrecks.
Not long before intermission, they all meet at the Brown Derby restaurant, where the topic of LSD drops into the conversation. Luce asks, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we three did this together with Gerald as our guide?” Actually, not so much, as dreamed up in Act II in Malibu. Sexy Sophia Loren dances into Grant’s mind, while Huxley is fixed on Maria. Luce’s vision of her daughter presents itself like horror, while her mother’s fate plays like a weird joke. In the end, the value of human connection is appraised.
The show’s real star is its elaborate production. Toni Leslie-James’s costumes are mid-century mouthwatering. Beowulf Boritt’s sets, glamorously lit by Bradley King, summon a drugstore, airy homes, a shrink’s office, and a Malibu beach, and are crisp and beautiful. Projections by 59 Productions are out of this world. All that can’t make this musical take flight. But when a show sputters you look for a lift anywhere you can find it.
Photo credit: Tony Yazbeck, Harry Hadden-Patton, and Carmen Cusack in Flying Over Sunset. (Photo by Joan Marcus)