'Lempicka' review — a captivating portrait of an artist's life and loves

Read our review of Lempicka on Broadway, a new musical by bookwriter/lyricist Carson Kreitzer and bookwriter/composer Matt Gould at the Longacre Theatre.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The battle between humanity vs. the machine is a recurring theme in the new Broadway musical Lempicka (and to think it takes place 100 years ago). Fresh on the art scene in Paris, Polish portraitist Tamara de Lempicka (Eden Espinosa) first encounters this dilemma while finding her style. Must she accurately capture the likenesses of her subjects, animating flesh on canvas? Or must her work be steely and sleek and angular like machines, achieving “perfection” in her work as her mentor has taught her?

The answer, it turns out, is neither — Lempicka found her niche painting French aristocrats and nude women in a style somewhere between the two: her Art Deco portraits sport precise geometry and the spark of life of her subjects - a sharp glint in their eye, a beckoning curve of their body.

It’s fitting that the musical named for her wages a similar battle as it unfolds at the Longacre Theatre. An uneven, exposition-heavy book by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould, and an industrial set by Riccardo Fernandez, are the show's more mechanical elements. But superb lighting design by Bradley King, an eclectic and electric score, and captivating performances are the pulsating flesh and blood that ultimately render Lempicka’s flaws like stray paint specks on canvas: keeping the work from “perfection,” maybe, but not ruining it. Ultimately, Lempicka is ravishing — and one of the best new musicals this season.

As crucial to the story of Lempicka’s undersung career is that of her bisexuality and great (and concurrent) romances with her first husband, Tadeusz (Andrew Samosky), and her Parisian muse, Rafaela (Amber Iman, phenomenal). Painting may let Lempicka seize control of her life, money, and reputation, but love is what "teaches her to live and breathe," to paraphrase a lyric from the exuberant Act 1 finale “Woman Is.” In finding love, she finds her art — merely recreating flesh on canvas is nothing compared to having it wrapped around you, on your lips, in your bed and head and heart.

“Woman Is” and other songs in Kreitzer and Gould's soaring pop-rock score that express queer women's desire, including “I Will Paint Her,” and “Women,” do so in a way seldom heard on stage — not as a dramatic revelation or source of turmoil or exotic transgression, but with sensual, beautiful poetry.

“She’s flesh and she’s chrome, she is steel, she is bone... beauty takes my name, takes my soul,” Lempicka sings of Rafaela in “I Will Paint Her.” When Lempicka's paintings appear on stage at the top of Act 2, the allure and desire spill out of them and makes you lean in, wanting more.

Lempicka summary

Tamara de Lempicka lived from 1898-1980. Though largely unknown by the general public, she was high in demand in her day and, even now, has high-profile collectors including Barbra Streisand and Madonna. The musical is a partial fictionalization of her life; most notably, little is known about the real Rafaela and the relationship she had with Lempicka.

As depicted in the musical, her career was largely shaped by wartime: The Russian Revolution propelled her and Tadeusz, an aristocrat, from St. Petersburg to Paris, and World War I shortly followed. The second act touches on the lead-up to World War II and its effect on her friends in Parisian high society, including her mentor Marinetti (a standout George Abud), who joins the Italian fascist forces, and her patrons, the Baron (Nathaniel Stampley) and Baroness (Beth Leavel), who fear Hitler's rise.

What to expect at Lempicka

New York's hottest club is the Longacre Theatre. Amid the ballads, songs like Marinetti's "Perfection" and the ensemble number "The New Woman" feature blends dance-music beats that truly sound like something you'd dance along to at a nightclub. King's zippy, colorful lighting only adds to this effect.

Those elements and the vibrant costumes by Paloma Young are welcome amid the colorless set. Lempicka was known for painting with bright colors, after all. One wishes her paintings were projected on stage more, particularly in Act 1 as we, perhaps previously unfamiliar with Lempicka, are still trying to envision what she's like as an artist. Her art is so striking, though, that at least the reveals are worth the wait.

What audiences are saying about Lempicka

  • I loved what I could see of it but there was a screen completely blocked from view. If you get to choose your seats, try for center orchestra or mezzanine - somewhere you are sure to see the whole screen." - Show-Score member Becca F.
  • "Watching Eden Espinosa as Lempicka is truly one of the most thrilling experiences. a true masterclass, and I won't ever shut up about it." - @enchantedval via X
  • "The set is very slick and the costumes are often interesting. There is a sprinkling of genuine magic (thank you Beth Leavel and George Abud) but the core of the show is neither historically informative or even accurate. The music is big and bold and boring. The voices are beautiful but belting alone is just not enough." - Show-Score member Ellen 7218
  • "Every choice from the songs to the costumes created such a beautiful in depth portrait of Lempicka and her muses. This show is such a good example of why we need to support new musicals." - @Graceyourself__ via X
  • "Sometimes you casually see a show and walk out of the theater fundamentally changed - that's how I felt after Lempicka." - Show-Score user Melissa Missy Kitty

Read more audience reviews of Lempicka on Show-Score.

Who should see Lempicka

  • Lempicka is tailor-made for queer audiences. While it's not the main focus of the plot, the lesbian subculture in Paris and real-life figures in it, like nightclub owner and Lempicka model Suzy Solidor, are included in the show.
  • Fans of the Greek mythology-inspired musical Hadestown should see the latest project from director Rachel Chavkin. Rafaela's jazzy numbers may even remind you of the enticing, lovelorn goddess Persephone from that show.
  • If you've seen everything on Broadway before (or feel like you have), go to Lempicka. It's one of this season's few original musicals — not based on an existing book, movie, or catalog of pop songs.

Learn more about Lempicka on Broadway

Much like its title painter as compared to her contemporaries, Lempicka is distinct from anything else on Broadway right now and packed with excellent artistic talent.

Learn more and get Lempicka tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Lempicka is at the Longacre Theatre.

Additional Lempicka content

Photo credit: Eden Espinosa in Lempicka on Broadway. (Photo by by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

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