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Review | ‘Flying Over Sunset’ is an artistic misfire

Photo: Joan Marcus

How could a musical about three controversial celebrities as they experience hallucinatory acid trips turn out to be so dull and doleful?

The unprecedented fall Broadway season, which included both new shows and the reopening of shows that had been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, now reaches the finish line with the opening night of “Flying Over Sunset,” which was originally slated to play its first preview performance on March 12, 2020, the day that the 18-month Broadway shutdown began. 

An unconventional new musical that constitutes historical fiction, “Flying Over Sunset” was inspired by the little-known fact that author Aldous Huxley, movie star Cary Grant, and playwright/Republican politician Claire Boothe Luce all experimented with LSD in the 1950s (when the drug was technically legal).

Just as Tom Stoppard imagined a meeting between the avant-gardist Tristan Tzara, political revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and novelist James Joyce in “Travesties,” in “Flying Over Sunset,” director and book-writer James Lapine imagines Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton, boyish and sullen), Grant (Tony Yazbeck, dapper and uneasy), and Luce (Carmen Cusack, confident and longing) meeting at the Brown Derby restaurant, realizing they are all “fellow explorers,” and then deciding to take LSD together at Booth’s Malibu beach house under the guidance of philosopher Gerald Heard (Robert Sella, affectionate and sensitive).

In a move that is reminiscent of the historic 1941 psychoanalysis musical “Lady in the Dark,” the score (with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Michael Korie) is reserved almost exclusively for when the protagonists are high on LSD and experiencing hallucinations, which brings them in touch with repressed memories, including Grant’s abusive father and his childhood dressed as a girl on the music hall stage, Luce’s loss of her daughter in a car accident, and Huxley’s recent loss of his wife due to breast cancer.

Unfortunately, “Flying Over Sunset” is an artistic misfire – and a nearly three-hour slog to sit through. The book is devoid of conflict (relying instead of introspection and confession), expository (filling in details about the politics of the period), repetitive (with the second act more or less mirroring the first act), and indulgently weird (including a sequence in which Grant imagines himself as a “giant penis rocket ship”). The unexpected highlight of the show ends up being a lengthy tap duet between Yazbeck and Atticus Ware (who plays Archie Leach, Grant’s younger self).

With the exception of the evocative title song (which is powerfully performed by Cusack), the ethereal score is weighed down by prosaic lyrics and a lack of melody. It often feels like an inferior knockoff of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (which also had book and direction by Lapine and orchestrations by Michael Starobin). 

While one can certainly admire the fact that Lincoln Center Theater is producing an original, unorthodox, and challenging new musical by serious writers on Broadway, “Flying Over Sunset” (which apparently received multiple developmental workshops) did not merit a full-scale Broadway production. On the contrary, the delicate and experimental piece would have benefited from the intimacy and reduced commercial expectations of a smaller Off-Broadway venue. 

“Flying Over Sunset” may not be a great musical, but it is quite an enthusiastic advertisement for LSD, which is depicted as giving both vivid sight and spiritual insight to the characters. But for better or worse, LSD is not available for purchase during intermission.  

Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., lct.org. Through Feb. 6.

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