By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Any child of the Sixties or worthy Deadhead would probably bet their monthly Social Security check that Harvard professor Timothy Leary first popularized Lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD-25 – and that its usage was actively pioneered and promoted by rock icons such as Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.
But the history of experimentation with LSD dates farther back into the 1950s, years before Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters ever began their acid-fueled searches for enlightenment in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” There was a time when scientists and doctors administered dosages under its pharmaceutical designation of Delysid to explore its potential benefits as a psychotherapeutic drug. The Central Intelligence Agency infamously experimented on subjects to determine if the substance could be weaponized and to glean how it affected users.
It was against this background of legitimate psychiatric administration of LSD that movie star Cary Grant, under recommendation of his estranged wife Betsy Drake, began sessions with a Los Angeles psychiatrist. It was during those professional sessions, while exploring issues of abandonment and infidelity, that he later admitted to having received 100 mind-altering applications of LSD. Grant, born Archibald Leach, stated on the record that LSD gave him invaluable “introspection,” which helped him appreciate the dichotomy of his downtrodden upbringing in England and his later international celebrity status.
Other well-connected Hollywood personalities at the time were also involved with the drug. These included British expatriates Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World,” and his wife Maria and Gerald Heard, an Irish member of the British literati and a well-known public speaker. Clare Booth Luce became a friend of Heard’s and was introduced to experimenting with the drug with Heard as her guide, just as he had done for Huxley.
Thus, a basis was established by writer and director James Lapine for what might loosely be termed as “the LSD play.” What started out as a failed play about Cary Grant’s drug usage was expanded into a musical linking Huxley, Booth and Heard together. Flying Over Sunset, is both an historical reference to mind-altering experimentation – what they called their drug experiences – and to the famous Hollywood boulevard which establishes their general location as well as their mystical being.
Lapine began the project with a series of workshops in 2015 and 2016 at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and two later readings at Lincoln Center in 2019. It had been cast, was in rehearsals and was set to open with previews set to begin on March 12, 2020. That was the very night the New York governor announced the closure of Broadway theaters for the foreseeable future due to COVID.
The rehearsal process began again in earnest a few months ago and the opening of Flying Over Sunset became a reality last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. In addition to book writer Lapine, music composer Tom Kitt (Next To Normal) and lyricist Michael Korie (Gray Gardens & War Paint) were made a part of the creative team. While largely a gamble on the part of producing artistic director André Bishop and others, there is much more in this musical to like than to detest.
The enormous stage gives the audience a perspective of the smallness of the actors, but the shadows and the projections utilized deliver a larger-than-life sensory experience much like a real-life LSD “acid” trip.
In the important major roles, the casting is quite memorable. Harry Hadden-Paton, last seen as Henry Higgins at the same venue, is quite wonderful in the role of the British novelist Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s character dominates much of the early action, while Tony Yazbeck’s Cary Grant seems to be more prominently featured near the end of the nearly three-hour long work, including intermission.
Carmen Cusack plays the curious character of Clare Booth Luce, the former Republican Congresswoman and wife of publishing magnate Henry Luce. Her emotional journey on the drug reveals her hard-boiled exterior is a protective measure of her psyche in order for her to deal with the dual losses of her stern-willed mother six years previous and her beloved, independent daughter more recently in separate automobile accidents.
Robert Sella as Gerald Heard closes out the major characters. His reticent performance eventually gives way to an unanticipated openness as his character deals with an attraction to the movie star. Sella is brilliant in the manner in which he keeps those feelings unexpressed until the latter portions of the work.
Kitt’s ethereal, other-worldly music enhances the actions of the actors on stage and gives an almost dream-like quality as background to the LSD visions the characters are experiencing. He and Korie’s collaborations on the songs “Flying Over Sunset,” “Bella Donna Di Agonia,” “Huxley Knows” and “The 23rd Ingredient” are beautifully rendered with musical coloring and complementary orchestrations by Michael Starobin and musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby, who is recalled for stellar work in The Light in the Piazza, with which this enjoys a favorable comparison.
The sounds of waves lapping on a shore are increased to an almost deafening cycle that repeats, while the inventive and supportive set designs by Beowulf Boritt move across the bare stage, eventually creating scenes set in drug stores, a psychiatrist’s office, the Brown Derby or on a busy beach.
Bradley King’s suffusive lighting designs work well with Dan Moses Schreier’s overpowering sound designs. A Botticelli painting is mysteriously brought to life, projected in one memorable LSD experience with its images splashed against a set.
Also of special note is Michelle Dorrance’s fabulous work with tap in which she uses the various sounds of shuffling feet, marching shoes, taps and dancing footwear across the stage to reverberate into the ears of the expectant crowd. The echoes of simple sounds like shoes pounding on flooring resound across the stage and reverberate directly into the ears of the audience. This quality of musical “trails” left behind is a perfect complement to the mind-altering visions the characters are experiencing. Dorrance’s work with many of the characters dancing about the stage is oftentimes in a delicate balance with those previously-mentioned, extraordinarily fantastic sound designs.
Laura Shoop plays well opposite Hadden-Paton as Huxley’s deceased wife Maria, while Nehal Joshi does double duty performing as Cary Grant’s Cockney father and Dr. Harris, his psychiatrist. Kanisha Marie Feliciano portrays Ann Harrow, Clare Booth Luce’s daughter, and biblical prophetess Judith, both to great effect. Young Atticus Ware takes on the role of Grant’s earlier self, Archie Leach, wearing a dress as his mother and father had him clothed. A special shout out to Emily Pynenburg for her portrayal of Sophia Loren, which is nothing short of a revelation. In one scene with projections from one of their movies, Loren tells Grant he cannot have her as a mistress any longer and that she is Carlo Ponti’s, because he will not bend to her indomitable spirit (“I Like To Lead”).
This is a sumptuous feast for the senses and well worth dropping in and dropping out.
Flying Over Sunset, written and directed by James Lapine, runs 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission and continues through February 22 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. Music is by Tom Kitt with lyrics by Michael Korie. For tickets, click here.