Broadway review by Adam Feldman
If you’ve ever been cornered at a party by someone describing at length how high they are, when you yourself are not high, then you have some idea what awaits you at Flying Over Sunset. Set in the 1950s, this curiosity of a Broadway musical imagines the LSD experiences of three celebrities of the period: the author and public intellectual Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton), the movie star Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck) and the playwright turned conservative politician Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack). In the first act, they separately drop acid for the first time; in the second, they try it together in Malibu with guidance from the historian and mystic thinker Gerald Heard (Robert Sella). Minds are blown, consciousnesses are expanded, tap dances are tap danced.
LSD was legal then, and all four of the show’s main characters really did experiment with it to varying degrees. But writer-director James Lapine has not found a way to translate this fun fact into a story. On a basic level, Flying Over Sunset has the War Paint problem of being about famous people whose lives had something in common but who mostly didn’t actually know each other. Even when they are gathered, their journeys remain individual ones, and—this being a James Lapine musical—their hallucinations tend to involve the return of dead loved ones: guilt-trippy ghosts who hover around the action for much of the show.
The most memorable parts of Flying Over Sunset come when it goes completely bonkers. I look forward to the flashbacks I will one day have to such scenes as Clare Boothe Luce rummaging through a flower bed to find her mother’s severed leg, or a bathing-capped Cary Grant singing about being a giant penis rocket ship (“I am a giant penis rocket ship! Zoom! Kaboom!”) before spinning out. But most of the show is disappointingly old-fashioned: Hair, but square. The main characters are all in their fifties or sixties; three of them have British accents and the fourth, Luce, speaks in a style that is at least halfway across the Atlantic. The script is loaded with exposition—except about Heard, who is treated as a gay sidekick who’s into yoga—and the songs, by Tom Kitt and Michael Korie, are tidy and conventional in the manner of a 1950s Broadway score (a waltz here, a tango there), with lyrics that, when they veer from their default cleverness, wade only ankle-deep into profundity. (“Navigate the airspace of the world beyond your view! Constantly exploring for the reason why you’re you!”) This, alas, is not musical theater on acid; this is acid on musical theater.
The Lincoln Center production has real pleasures: Yazbeck shares a thrilling music-hall duet, choreographed by Michelle Dorrance, with his younger self (Atticus Ware), who is dressed as a girl; Cusack sings as beautifully as always, as does Laura Shoop as Huxley’s wife. And the staging is very handsome indeed: Beowulf Boritt’s expansive set, Toni-Leslie James’s costumes and Bradley King’s lighting are all first-class. But these elements can only distract so much from a show that would probably make more sense as a one-act in a smaller space. What a long, strange trip it is.
Flying Over Sunset. Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center (Broadway). Book by James Lapine. Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Michael Korie. With Tony Yazbeck, Carmen Cusack, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert Sella. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.