Southern California has attracted more than its share of seekers for a century; the remarkable light, dry heat, silly palm trees, pulsing ocean, and sweet bougainvillea overwhelm the senses. Add to these the mind-altering capacity of drugs like LSD and you have a promising theatrical concept.
Writer/director James Lapine and his collaborators, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Michael Korie, got their new musical, Flying Over Sunset, on its feet nearly two years ago, only to have it vanish, along with all the Broadway shows, at the dawn of the pandemic. The extremely informative house program, with essays about the four main characters and much else, was published early in 2020 and has been waiting patiently for this moment, with the show finally open at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont.
I went to graduate school in SoCal about a decade after the events of Lapine’s “bio-fic,” grounded in a series of real encounters and taking liberties with the future. The piece collects two high-powered figures and their guide, all users in the mid-’50s of the newly rediscovered chemical lysergic acid, and eventually deposits them in the opulent Malibu digs of Clare Booth Luce, “woman of the century,” who was by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, a playwright, a media queen, a congresswoman, and the U.S. ambassador to Italy. Married to media magnate Henry Luce, who founded Time, Life, and Fortune, her extraordinary life was touched by tragedy when her only child, her daughter Ann, died in an accident at the age of 20.
Played here with brittle brio by Carmen Cusack, Mrs. Luce invites two equally influential men—British writer Aldous Huxley (played by British actor Harry Hadden-Paton), whom she already knew, and Cary Grant (American Tony Yazbeck), another Brit, who transformed himself from an impoverished child vaudevillian into one of Hollywood’s major matinee idols—to join her and Gerald Heard, the Anglo-Irish writer and scholar who in real life guided both Luce and Huxley on their first acid trips and who here is played by Robert Sella, to join her at her oceanfront home for a shared experience. Heard urges his famous charges to chant a mantra before, during, and after their LSD-fueled adventures.
Back in the day, we young ’60s academics, clustered down the coast from the setting of this show, used to joke about a doctoral examination that would merely require candidates to state “the mystic syllable of complete content.” The answer, of course, was “OM.”
Sunset begins as grand opera and ends as a sitcom; begins infused with the wonderful tap choreography of Michelle Dorrance and finishes with a bunch of talking heads so altered by their chemical adventures that all they do is shut up and chant. In between, the marvelous, trippy lighting (by Bradley King) and mid-century modern scene design (by Beowulf Boritt) carry the characters from a Hollywood drugstore, where Huxley rhapsodizes over the paintings of Botticelli he finds in an art book while his dying wife picks up a prescription; to the Beverly Hills office of Grant’s wife’s psychiatrist, to whom Grant behaves with imperious rudeness; to Clare’s patio, where, all alone, she manages a dramatic orgasm without benefit of digital manipulation.
And that’s just the first act, along with the revelation that Grant, an abused child, was originally Archie Leach, a young dancer and acrobat whose mother dressed him in girls’ clothes and whose father had his wife committed, causing her to vanish mysteriously from Grant’s life. “The function of the brain is to protect us from being overwhelmed by this enormous mass of information,” Grant’s wife’s shrink tells him. “[LSD] helps us to rediscover events from our past that may give us insight into ourselves.” Yazbeck as Grant tap-dances up a storm with his younger self, played by Atticus Ware. Other supporting actors fill multiple roles as well as dancing, including Emily Pynenburg (who also does a turn as Sophia Loren); Laura Shoop, who plays Huxley’s wife; and Kanisha Marie Feliciano and Michele Ragusa, who perform other key figures in the lives of the principals.
The score is mostly forgettable, with the exception of the title song, whose refrain brings to mind Sondheim’s “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You,” from Sweeney Todd. The show’s message is benign and timeless: BE HERE NOW. But when “now” lasts nearly three hours, and when most of what the audience gets to do is watch other people tripping, and when the superb tap dancing by the entire cast in Act 1 disappears into the flowery bowers and crashing waves of Act 2, that mystic syllable of complete content starts to mutate. By the end, instead of feeling elevated by the meditative sound of Om, we find ourselves murmuring “Oy!” ❖