LSD musical is a bore on drugs


Theater review

2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th St.

Being the only sober person in a room full of drunks is never any fun. Neither, as it would happen, is being an audience member at a musical about rich people who are high on LSD.

At least its trippy cousin “Hair” has energetic songs and some cute hippies who jump around to them.

Not that “Flying Over Sunset,” which opened Monday night on Broadway, is aiming to be a good-time kegger. It’s a stuffy and somber show with an off-putting premise: A 1950s California acid trip taken by movie star Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck), “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton) and conservative politician Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack).

That’s one tough pitch, even for open-minded Lincoln Center Theater subscribers.

Broadway, of course, should not dominated by schlocky copycat musicals based on old films, and ingenuity and experimentation must be encouraged. With risk, however, should come drama and the electricity of something new.

Writer-director James Lapine has the originality part down, to put it mildly, but, boy, is his show sedate and esoteric. That’s saying a lot for the man who wrote the strange-at-the-time books for “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.” They’re “Guys and Dolls” next to this.

Beyond oddness, though, “Flying Over Sunset” is unforgivably dull onstage. It would make a fascinating New Yorker article, but is far from a compelling, cohesive musical.

The decent first act has Huxley, Grant and Luce all separately take LSD to gain perspective on their troubled lives. The author hasn’t been writing much, the actor just retired from showbiz and the pol is wary about becoming ambassador to Brazil. Not exactly Herculean struggles, but the audience learns more about their deeper traumas as the show progresses.

Harry Hadden-Paton as Aldous Huxley in “Flying Over Sunset.”
Joan Marcus

There are two early musical drug sequences that make you hope for the best. Huxley wanders high through a department store in “Wondrous,” as technicolor orbs float around, and Beowulf Boritt’s mammoth curvy screens (the set is too grand for a chamber piece) swirl. Right after, a tripping Grant does a tap dance with his younger self, Archie (Atticus Ware), that livens the sterile mood. Yazbeck has wowed Broadway with tap in the past, and he’s a thrill to watch and to hear.

Nothing else ever matches those moments, and the show with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Michael Korie falls into a trance. In the jumbled, uninvolving second act, the mystic Gerald Heard (Robert Sella) leads the trio in a chant of “Om,” and the whole endeavor all starts to sound like an endless “ommmm.”

The score is blandly pleasant, evoking the tide coming in or a tree swaying in the wind, and is beautifully performed by the three leads. Cusack and Yazbeck are especially soaring. Then, right at the end, are two trite tunes that come out of nowhere. Huxley, Grant and Heard croon the twee “Three Englishmen” as they wander into the ocean. A lame joke is repeated too many times about Heard actually being “Anglo-Irish.”

Tony Yazbeck tap dances as Cary Grant.
Tony Yazbeck tap-dances as Cary Grant.
Joan Marcus

Then, the final song, sung mostly by Huxley, is a “Muppets”-like number called “The 23rd Ingredient” about the scientific pieces that make up humans. The musical is in desperate need of an actual ending, and, speaking of the finale, a little humanity.

The lack of believability in Lapine’s book makes sense when you learn that the group’s acid trip was all made up. Yes, they used LSD, but these three notables never got together at Luce’s California home one fateful day and bickered over whether they’d take 100 micrograms or 150, and awkwardly asked Grant to remove his socks.

Fictional confrontations have become popular in musicals. Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley collided in “The Pirate Queen” (they never met in real life), and cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden had a dust-up in “War Paint” (although those entrepreneurs never came face-to-face in real life, either). The reason that these tête-à-têtes always feel forced and fake is that they are a cold means to an end and didn’t actually happen.

Between the hallucinations and outright fabrications of “Flying Over Sunset,” there is nothing real to ground us.


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