Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: A Masterpiece Gets Massacred

By Michael Block 

Leonardo Di Vinci's Mona Lisa is one of the greatest works of art. There is no doubt about it. So what is the story between artist and subject? Is there a tale of love and lust? Are there other players that thwarted the duo? What IS the story of Lisa and Leonardo? With music by Donya Lane, lyrics by Ed McNamee, and a book by McNamee, Lane, and Michael Unger, a version of the origin of the masterpiece is given the musical treatment. Yet Lisa and Leonardo is simply inexplicable but I'm sure going to try to explain it!
To put it bluntly, the book abysmal. With the book and structure being so out of whack, the rest of the musical nose-dives. If the story follows the exact timeline of researched facts, perhaps it is time to adjust the story so theatrical tension and genuine stakes can exist. As it stands now, there is a baffling progression of time that can only be explained by trying to jam so much in. Based on context clues, years can go by between scenes. And by omitting the action within those years, there is little relationship shown. Everything is forced. We want to see the chemistry! At the beginning, we see the introduction between Lisa and Leonardo. We see that Lisa is involved in a loveless marriage. We see that Leonardo is engaged in an affair with his male pupil, but more on that later. We watch them as they debate the nature of their project and then BAM! Five years have passed and the painting, or at least a good chunk of it, is done. We don't get to see Leonardo's reaction to the first time he starts his masterpiece. We don't get to see Lisa sit as she is studied. That's the intrigue. That's why we're here. Show him paint her! If the excuse is the lack of intrigue of watching an artist paint, just go back to John Logan's Red where we not only watched a canvas get primed and painted, we literally watched paint dry. There is a story without words that could easily have been told. So if Leonardo painting Mona Lisa isn't the subject of the musical, what are we watching? The trio of writers introduce a cavalcade of characters that play a role in destroying any prospect of love including the gay lover, the primadonna lusting to be painted, the jilted husband, oh and Machiavelli. It's likely if you tracked these characters presence in comparison to the titular characters, it may out weigh them. Even if every single thing was fabricated, this story is just not interesting. And if that is why the other characters have such a large presence then the story of Lisa and Leonardo should likely not be told. The other blaring problem that this musical encountered was where does it live on the spectrum of style? Is it epic theater like Les Miserables or campy like Something Rotten? There were some musical moments that lived in a world of Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy, some that were so overly dramatic, and then characters that were so big and caricature you wondered if  years of ideas on paper got mixed up to create one giant conglomeration. Director Michelle Tattenbaum seemed to honor the creators’ wishes by not defining one style for the entirety. It's ok to have comedic moments in epic theater. Just look at Thenardier and "Master of the House." But it has to live in the same consistent world. These songs and characters absolutely do not. There were just far too many inconsistencies in Lisa and Leonardo. As far as characters are concerned, they were quite one-dimensional due to the fact that individual journeys were virtually non-existent thanks to the drastic timeline of events. It’s very likely that the writers were oh so close to the material to see that this was a problem. The style of music from Donya Lane was varying. There was rock. There was musical comedy. There was opera. Lane gave us everything. Were they happily married? Like Lisa and her Francesco, not even close. There were certainly some colorful numbers. Some stunning solos. Consistency was sadly just not in the cards.
photo by Matt Montath
Enough about the material, shall we move to the production? Helmed by Michelle Tattenbaum, Lisa and Leonardo had far too many moving parts. Literally. The scenic design from Reid Thompson featured Di Vinci influences where sketches and models were attached to a pulley-like system. It helped shape the world but with little to no wing space, they were never truly off stage so Tattenbaum and Thompson might as well have deliberately kept them on the outskirts of the stage. And let’s talk about the humor of the red carpet treatment for Isabella D’Este. The idea was cute but the execution was harsh. Nothing is more uncomfortable than watching an actress try to hit her mark in a song while futzing around with a scenic element that just won’t work. And the flats with the cityscape? They just took up too much valuable playing space. From costume to score, there were so many modern influences. The silhouettes in Michael Bevins’ outfits had a modern flare to them. And it was a nice touch.
The company was committed to bringing their best to the stage. And that is greatly commendable. As Leonardo, Timothy John Smith has a booming vocal. But who was Leonardo? Smith couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. The stoic look in the Mona Lisa's face in the painting is matched by the lack of personality in the script. Lizzie Klemperer did everything in her power to make Lisa interesting. There was nothing left for her to do. But she did receive a fantastic eleven-o’clock number. The mean girl quartet led by Marissa M. Miller as Isabella D’Este absolutely brought the fun. They found a way to infuse modern style into classic characters. And then there’s the tale of the little devil himself, Salai. Ravi Roth is a strong actor but his characterization was not of this world. Whether it was his choice or his director, this version of Salai was overly flamboyant to where it just was not believable.
With the quality of credits attached to the company, it's mesmerizing that this is what was turned out. So what happens next with Lisa and Leonardo? It may be time to go back to the sketchbook and try something new or scrap it altogether.