It is axiomatic that other people’s dreams are boring to hear about, so you would assume that other people’s acid trips are equally if not more eye-glazing.
And yet the ambitious and frequently moving musical “Flying Over Sunset” defies such assumptions. While this adventurous journey into the psyches of celebrities on psychedelics has its longueurs, the score, with music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and lyrics by Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”), and the book and direction by James Lapine, are as accomplished as one would expect from such talents. And the production, from Lincoln Center Theater, is ravishingly beautiful, as this deep-pocketed company bravely puts it ample resources behind this decidedly unlikely project.
The show is based in fact. The central characters — the British writer Aldous Huxley (of “Brave New World” fame); the playwright, diplomat and wife-to-magazine-titan Clare Boothe Luce; and Cary Grant (no description needed) — all were known to experiment with LSD in the 1950s, when it was still legal, although hardly the usual recourse for those seeking psychological help. “Flying Over Sunset” is also timely: In recent years, drugs once derided as dangerous, including LSD, have been increasingly hailed as useful in battling psychic traumas, from PTSD to addiction.
The first act is dedicated to the individual experiences of the characters as they embark upon their journeys into the world of the drug. For each, the need to assuage long-buried wounds will prove to be the primary motivation. Huxley, played by Harry Hadden-Paton (Henry Higgins of Lincoln Center Theater’s “My Fair Lady”), first goes tripping in the world’s biggest Rexall drugstore, of all places, in a comic scene that finds him conjuring up a funny Biblical quasi-opera, inspired by a book about Botticelli he finds on a shelf. (Drugstores were a bit different then.) His wife, Maria (Laura Shoop), is recovering from breast cancer surgery. They are accompanied by their close friend Gerald Heard (Robert Sella, nicely understated), a gay man and fellow writer who will play the role of “guide” to the characters’ trips into the unknown.
Grant, whom the terrific Tony Yazbeck mercifully does not try explicitly to mimic, is battling his way through a broken marriage and a decision to retire from the screen. In his psychiatrist’s office, he discovers, however, after insisting on being administered the drug, that it is his painful childhood — in particular the disappearance of his mother and his derisive, abusive father — that are conjured when he’s under the influence. Grant envisions himself as a child — dressed by his mother in girlish clothing — and the younger Archie Leach (Grant’s real name) and Grant engage in a charming tap dance number set to a British music hall-style tune. (The choreography shines most brightly here, thanks to the tap specialist Michelle Dorrance.)
And Luce, in her lavish Connecticut garden, awakens to the indescribable beauties of the natural world, in a delicately rendered song called “A Sapphire Dragonfly,” only to later find herself welcoming visions of her mother and her daughter, both of whom died in car accidents.
Among the primary pleasures of “Flying Over Sunset” is the sumptuous, symphonic score, which attempts to channel through music the rapturous experiences the characters go through. After what seems like an endless diet of pop-rock musicals and jukebox musicals, diving into this often beautiful score feels like slipping into a big, warm, sudsy bath. The wonderful Kimberly Grigsby conducts with her usual gusto, and the arrangements, by Michael Starobin, are outstanding.
As Huxley, Hadden-Paton brings a dry, slightly self-mocking intelligence to the character, whose braininess is lampooned in the song “Huxley Knows.” But he also finds moments of wounding grief when his wife has died, and his psychedelic explorations become a way of coming to terms with his loss. Yazbeck’s Grant captures the character’s slight stiffness and courtliness, but we never lose sight of the brutalized child he keeps glimpsing. “Do we ever shake our childhoods?” Luce asks at one point, a mite obviously.
Nonetheless, perhaps best of all is Carmen Cusack as Luce, whose glamour-drenched career has left her with a void in her heart and the need to plunge into the depths of her sorrows, which only the drug, she believes, can help her to do.
The musical’s second act, in which, at Luce’s instigation, all four of the central characters gather at her Malibu, Calif. estate to embark on a collective trip, is less rewarding than the first. How many acid trips, after all, can one really expect to observe from outside without feeling locked out of the party? But Luce’s trip, in which she again reunites with her daughter and her mother in what appears to be heaven, brings us some of the most moving songs, as Luce confronts the anguish about her losses. Cusack’s vocally rich performance is veined with tenderness underneath the character’s worldly exterior.
Lapine, in the tricky — if hardly, for him, unusual — position of directing a musical he co-wrote, might profitably have trimmed some of the dialogue, which meanders through various subjects (Hollywood gossip, etc.), not always too fruitfully. But the physical production, with gorgeous sets by Beowulf Boritt (the luxurious fern-lined bower in which Luce sees a vision of her mother is almost worth the price of a ticket), and aptly hallucinatory lighting by Bradley King, could hardly be bettered.
“Flying Over Sunset,” like the musicals Lapine collaborated on with Stephen Sondheim, is a conceptual show, which is to say it begins with an idea or theme, elaborates it with music and story, but does not by any means trade in traditional narrative. I suspect it will be knocked for being less accessible or fully realized than his Sondheim shows. (And, no, it’s not the equal of “Sunday in the Park With George.”)
But it is recognizably of the same, vibrantly imaginative type: a musical that pushes against the traditional notions of what a Broadway musical might or should be. It’s a trip some won’t be willing to take, but in an environment when musicals seem to fall into just a few dreary formulas — in addition to the jukebox, there’s the seasonal movie-to-stage transfer — it’s a valiant and intriguing journey into uncharted territory. This musical attempts to expand the possibilities of musical theater, just as its characters were intent on expanding their consciousnesses.
“Flying Over Sunset” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on Dec. 13, 2021.
Review photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Book by James Lapine; Music by Tom Kitt; Lyrics by Michael Korie; Directed by James Lapine; Choreographed by Michelle Dorrance; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Bradley King; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Hair and Wig Design by Matthew Armentrout.
Producers: Lincoln Center Theater.
Cast: Carmen Cusack, Harry Hadden-Paton, Tony Yazbeck, Kanisha Marie Feliciano, Nehal Joshi, Emily Pynenburg, Michele Ragusa, Robert Sella, Laura Shoop and Atticus Ware.