When he takes LSD, the movie star Cary Grant turns into a spectacular tap-dancer, in a duet with a boy in a dress – who turns out to be his younger self, Archie Leach. The novelist and futurist Aldous Huxley sees classic paintings by Botticelli come to life, and therefore understands them better. Clare Booth Luce, playwright, Congresswoman, and ambassador, conjures up her mother and her daughter, who each died in traffic accidents six years apart.
These are among the imagined acid trips depicted in “Flying Over Sunset,” the not quite mind-blowing musical, scheduled to run through February 6*, that is the last show to open on the Great Bright Way in this strangest of years. One is tempted to say that thus Broadway ends the year on a high note. But it’s an artificial high. This is a show built around the slenderest of premises – the documented fact that these three celebrities each took LSD in the 1950s. They didn’t take the drug together, although two of them did get turned on (separately) by writer and acid-advocate Gerald Heard. Yet the three of them, plus Heard, are dramatized getting high together in this high-end production at Lincoln Center, employing some of Broadway’s most highly regarded talents, including the show’s writer and director, James Lapine.
There are certainly some highlights in “Flying Over Sunset,” chief among them Tony Yazbeck’s phenomenal dancing as Cary Grant, accompanied step by step by 14-year-old newcomer Atticus Ware as his younger self. The choreographer, Michelle Dorrance, was a star performer in Stomp, and we hear the influence. The rest of the cast is also first-rate.
However, after sitting through the nearly three hours of this unique fusion of high-minded spiritual contemplation, gossipy biographical tidbits, subtle comedy and fabricated hallucinations all presented in song and dance, I was never completely persuaded that these three famous figures belong in the same musical; indeed, it seemed unlikely that they would have had anything to do with one another.
I wondered whether the very existence of “Flying Over Sunset” was a testament less to Lapine’s power of imagination than to his pull. Maybe Lincoln Center couldn’t say no to him. Lapine has certainly earned the trust of the theater community, given his track record with what might initially have been seen as equally unlikely ideas for a musical, including three successful collaborations with Stephen Sondheim (the Pulitzer Prize winning “Sunday in the Park with George,” and the Tony winning musicals “Passion” and “Into The Woods.”) Lapine’s collaborators on “Flying Over Sunset” have also taken risks that have paid off (although not as consistently) — composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, but also the notorious flop High Fidelity and the recent The Visitor) and lyricist Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, but also the notorious flop Dr. Zhivago.)
Old hippies and others who associate LSD with psychedelic rock and the tutu-wearing hippo in “Fantasia” may be shocked – at least disappointed — that “Flying Over Sunset” begins with a waltz, on a big bare stage. Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton) is standing alone, humming it, trying to remember the lyrics. Soon, he’s joined by his wife Maria (Laura Shoop) and they dance the waltz together, their shadows projected dramatically like film noir on the backdrop. Soon, they are joined on stage by the rest of the ten-member cast, including Yazbeck as Cary Grant, Carmen Cusack as Clare Boothe Luce, Robert Sella as Gerald Heard
Suddenly, there’s a flash of light bulbs, and the three stars are giving what initially looks like a joint press conference, but is actually three separate events, as a way of filling us in on their fame: Cary Grant announces to the press his retirement after making 61 films; Aldous Huxley at his press conference defends a teacher fired for recommending his novel “Brave New World”; Clare Booth Luce testifies before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs as President Eisenhower’s nominee for the Ambassadorship to Brazil.
Each is at a crossroads in their lives (Aldous’s wife is dying; Clare will resign the ambassadorship), and in the next three scenes, each will individually take LSD – Aldous, under Gerald’s supervision, at a Rexall Drug Store in Hollywood; Cary Grant at the office of the psychiatrist who had been treating his third wife Betsy Drake with it; Care Boothe Luce at her estate in Connecticut. The three plus Gerald happen to meet at the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, each talk about their experimenting, and all agree to gather at Clare’s rented estate in Malibu for some communal hallucinating, which takes up Act II.
If nothing else, their high jinks together on the beach seem to free up both the songwriters (especially the lyricist) and the designers (especially the projection designers) to let loose and get creative. My favorite song is “OM,” a meditative chant that is tuneful, and gorgeously sung, but also quite funny, with each of the character singing their inner monologue (Cary: What am I doing here. Clare: I wish he’d take his shirt off. Aldous: She has such interesting feet. Gerald: “In movies he’s amazing…/Don’t let him catch me gazing”)
Aldous tells an interviewer at one point that doses of Lysergic acid diethylamide 25 “take an individual inward and foster a contemplative manner of self-exploration” — which is manifested for these four characters by conjuring up people from their past. Thus (conveniently for the production) the acid trips produce some juicy biographical moments. So, for example, we see the adult Cary Grant dancing with, and wooing Sophia Loren (portrayed by Emily Pynenburg), while there’s a fun-house mirror projection of an actual movie in which they co-starred. (Cary Grant and Sophia Loren did in fact have an affair.) We also see Archie, Cary Grant as a youth, in a dress because that’s how his mother dressed him.
How far this celebrity psychoanalyzing goes is reflected in the song “My Mother and I,” in which each character takes his or her turn until Aldous stops the music: “My God, we didn’t take LSD so we could sit around and tell sad stories about our mothers.” It’s hard to conclude that the creative team feels the same way, but at least they do have a sense of humor about what they’re doing.
Flying Over Sunset
Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through February 6, 2022
*Update: Flying Over Sunset will now run through January 16, 2022, three weeks earlier than planned.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $87 to $167 ($44 digital lottery)
Book and direction by James Lapine
Music by Tom Kitt
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Choreography by Michelle Dorrance, set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, video design by Nick Corrigan, projections by 59 Productions, Jeff Sugg and Benjamin Pearcy; orchestrations by Michael Starobin, music direction by Kimberly Grigsby.
Cast: Carmen Cusack as Clare Boothe Luce, Harry Hadden-Paton as Aldous HuxleyTony Yazbeck as Cary Grant, Robert Sella as Gerald Heard, Kanisha Marie Feliciano, Nehal Joshi, Emily Pynenburg, Michele Ragusa, Laura Shoop, Atticus Ware