The elevator pitch of Flying Over Sunset is downright irresistible: movie star Cary Grant, writer/philosopher/public intellectual Aldous Huxley, and author/Republican congresswoman/ambassador Clare Boothe Luce all had connections to Los Angeles and all are known to have experimented with LSD; Huxley and Luce were introduced to the drug by the same person, historian and LSD advocate Gerald Heard. What if, the show postulates, the four took a trip together in Malibu? The creative team, too, seems like it can’t miss: longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine wrote the book and directed; Tony award winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) wrote the music; tap virtuoso Michelle Dorrance choreographed; the cast mixes actors with deep roots on Broadway and Tony nominations galore (Carmen Cusack as Luce, Harry Hadden-Paton as Huxley, Tony Yazbeck as Grant) with talented newer faces.
And yet, while there’s nothing to fault in the particulars of Flying Over Sunset, and much to praise–impeccable pedigree, original concept, expert performances, stunning design–there’s nothing much to love, either. For all the magic that set designer Beowulf Boritt, projection designers 59 Productions, and lighting designer Bradley King bring to envisioning the acid-trip and California landscapes–a Botticelli painting come to life in the middle of a drugstore! A verdant heaven! A tango with Sophia Loren! The treacherous Pacific Ocean!–there’s not a lot of genuine weirdness, wit, or soul in the whole. The songs are mostly pleasant, often plaintive, but not particularly memorable (and when they miss, they really miss; one of Grant’s LSD vision-songs, “Rocket Ship,” despite Yazbeck’s gamest efforts, is painfully ridiculous). I thought at first that perhaps the show would use the convention that singing would indicate the enhanced perception of the acid high, which would have been structurally interesting, but that’s not quite how it plays out. (Characters on acid always sing, but that’s not the only singing.) Dorrance’s choreography is wonderful, as is Yazbeck’s execution of it, but there’s not enough of it (and of the two big show-stopper dance numbers, one feels awkwardly shoehorned into the story as an excuse for Grant to do the aforementioned tango with Sophia Loren).
The three main characters lived rich and fascinating lives, but since those lives really only intersect for one afternoon, there’s little real emotional connection or resonance among them (outside of a shared appreciation for the beauty of Cary Grant, which, yes, is hard to resist). And in the interest of getting the audience up to speed quickly on who these figures are, each is limned by biographical data and one key life tragedy (Grant’s troubled childhood; Huxley’s loss of his wife; Luce’s loss of her mother and daughter) more than personality. The main performers give each convincing qualities, and spending time with them is enjoyable: Yazbeck nails Grant’s languorous charisma; Haddon-Paten conjures Huxley’s intellectual enthusiasms and Cusack Luce’s impeccable poise. And in playing the least familiar character but also the linchpin holding them together, Robert Sella as Heard has perhaps the hardest job; the book tends to lean a little too heavily on Heard’s tenuous position as a mostly-out gay man in mostly-closeted Hollywood as his character trait. In the end, though, the show is really about the wounds and losses each bears, and the characters tend to seem emotionally quite similar–perhaps partly because Kitt’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics also don’t have strong character notes.
Act 1 is largely exposition, some of it elegantly done and much of it a little belabored, establishing the three main characters at the places they are in their lives and limning their first, separate acid trips: Huxley’s wife, Maria (a lovely Laura Shoop) is slowly dying of cancer and his first drug experiment takes place at Rexall’s world-famous drugstore in LA. Perusing an art book, Huxley sees a famous Italian painting come to life. Grant’s wife (who does not appear in the play) has been given LSD by her psychiatrist, and Grant visits the doctor to try the drug himself. Grant has a vision of his own child self (played by Atticus Ware), a child performer with a troubled family life, and dances a stunning tap duet with Archie, the boy he was. Luce is grieving the loss of both her mother and her daughter in separate car accidents and musing whether she should withdraw her nomination for an ambassadorship to Brazil. She tries the drug in her own Connecticut garden, and has the “flying over Sunset” vision of California that titles the show.
At the end of the act, the four come together over lunch at the Brown Derby, and prompted by Gerald’s unsubtle but accurate observation that the other three are all at moments of great change in their lives, they agree to meet at Luce’s Malibu home for a shared adventure in their own consciousness. That’s Act 2, which takes place in one day (from late morning to sunset). In the afternoon, the three men take a dip in the Pacific that almost turns into disaster, but Huxley saves the day. In the end, the sun sets as they slowly come down–flight over; sunset remains. Each is perhaps at slightly more peace.
I fear that I’m making Flying Over Sunset sound entirely dull, and it’s absolutely not—Lapine’s staging brings a much-wanted cleverness, and Lapine and Dorrance do some interesting things with the rhythmic use of footfalls, especially in full-company scenes. There are some beautiful visual moments where we see lost family members lit, behind the picture windows of Luce’s house, almost like ghosts. And I cannot say enough about the true wonders of the design elements–the way the projections gradually materialize onto the curved walls of the set; the way colors creep into the lighting (the colored pendant lights in Rexall’s drugstore, to name just one example); the lushness of the flowers; the way projections, a blue oval on the stage, dry ice, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound combine to give the impression of characters overtaken by the sea. The whole thing is enjoyable, with moments of true visual wonder, but I was hoping for more: more originality, more weirdness, more trust in the audience to leave biography behind and really live with these characters as they try to journey within.