The description almost sounds like a joke. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, Clare Booth Luce, writer and ambassador, and movie star Cary Grant walk into a bar and decide to drop acid together. OK, it wasn't a bar, it was the Brown Derby restaurant, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, I don't have a punchline, and neither, it seems, do the creators of the new Broadway musical Flying Over Sunset, who take this one-line synopsis and stretch it out to nearly three unsustainable hours.
That Flying Over Sunset — a show so small it's practically social-distancing on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre — has the pedigree it does makes the production all the more disappointing. Script and direction are by James Lapine, he of Sunday in the Park With George; lyrics are by Grey Gardens co-creator Michael Korie; and the score is by Tom Kitt, one of the authors of Next to Normal. Together, they squander a potentially exciting (and completely fictional) premise, building a show that thinks it's more profound than it actually is, while providing no new insight into its discussions of loss, sexuality, family conflict, and addition. And did I mention it's nearly three hours long?
For the first act, the writers provide us with 75 minutes of exposition inspired by the fact that all of these individuals did actually experiment with psychedelics in their lifetime. Aldous (the buttoned-up Harry Hadden-Paton) first takes LSD in a Hollywood drug store where Botticelli's painting The Return of Judith to Bethulia comes to life before his very eyes. Cary (Tony Yazbeck, who gets an amazing tap number from choreographer Michelle Dorrance) has recently quit acting and experiments with the drug at his psychiatrist's office, where he has a fantasy involving his abusive father (Nehal Joshi) and effeminate younger self (Atticus Ware, as triple a threat as I've ever seen). Clare (Carmen Cusack, who bears the brunt of the score), having turned down the ambassadorship to Brazil, is still grieving the loss of her mother (Michele Ragusa) and daughter (Kanisha Marie Feliciano), who died in separate car accidents several years apart.
The three meet by happenstance at the Brown Derby in Hollywood following the recent passing of Aldous's wife Marie (Laura Shoop). Together with their mutual friend and fixer Gerald Heard (Robert Sella, making the most of a role whose only characteristics are "gay" and "Buddhist"), they make the decision to go "flying over Sunset" together. Act 2 brings to life the trips that help them come to terms with their individual losses.
Since everyone's personal voyage on mind-altering substances is internal, dramatizing their effects is a near-impossible task, and that's where Flying Over Sunset falters. Considering how imaginative the description of the piece is, Lapine's dialogue, plot, and glacial pacing are awfully monotonous, and Kitt and Korie's score floats in and out like the wind: sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don't. If there ever were a show that could have used an outside director to tell them, for instance, that the entire second act just reiterates the same themes and conversations that were discussed before intermission, it's this one. This show has a lot of wheel-spinning and minimal rewards.
As for the actors, they do what is required. However, having seen My Fair Lady (Hadden-Paton), Bright Star (Cusack), On the Town (Yazbeck), and Sylvia (Sella), I can safely say that they've all had better material to work with elsewhere, and you can tell they know it, too. At least costume designer Toni-Leslie James provides them with chic duds. They all look like they've jumped out of old photos.
James and her fellow creatives do supply some ravishing stage pictures, which almost capture the shapeshifting world of hallucinogens in a credible way. While set designer Beowulf Boritt has the hardest job (trying to cordon off sections of the stage to make it look smaller than it actually is), his monolithic structures, when combined with the experiments lighting designer Bradley King and projections designer Benjamin Pearcy are conducting on color and perspective, they create some really beautiful effects that I don't think I've ever really seen onstage before. At last, some innovation.
While I'll give Flying Over Sunset some well-earned points for its originality (the theatrical equivalent of an A for effort, I guess, but that and a dollar will get you on the subway), the show ultimately commits the cardinal sin of entertainment: It's just boring. There are people who will get more out of this abstract musical about grief than I did, and I hope they do. As for me, I'm just gonna take an edible and watch North by Northwest.