In the midst of the deadly dull 1950s, Hollywood celebs Cary Grant, Claire Booth Luce and Aldous Huxley escape their ennui by dropping acid. No serious sex is involved and no one rushes out on a frantic candy run but much witty chitchat ensues in “Flying Over Sunset,” a stylish new Broadway musical by James Lapine (book), Tom Kitt (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics).
Nowadays, people may do psychedelic drugs to celebrate a birthday. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, LSD was a novel form of mind-expanding psychotherapy, gingerly prescribed under the eye of a medical professional. With that cautionary premise in mind, the creatives of this delectable theatrical bonbon treat us to a tasteful trip on the mild side.
The show’s trippy sensibility is strikingly displayed on Beowulf Boritt’s spare, highly stylized cycloramic set and under Bradley King’s luscious lighting, which turns the color blue into a juicy fruit so cool and sweet the eye can almost taste it. Mixing up the senses is very much a quality of this thoughtful and unusually literate musical, which book writer and director Lapine has apparently conceived as a head trip with brains.
Heart is also involved in this enterprise, as is attested to by Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton, the soul of sensitivity), an author (“Brave New World”) who is losing his eyesight. As one heartbreaker of a lyric goes: “Thank you for this gift to re-explore / Everything in life I missed before.”
A lovely waltz, of all things (“The Music Plays On”), establishes the mood at the top of the show. Solemnly staged by choreographer Michelle Dorrance to the rhythm of a human heartbeat, this dance of life is built upon a hesitation step that somehow makes it all the more fragile — and precious.
Introductions are made with uncommon musical grace, starting with Huxley, who is nearly blind. Under the drug, he can miraculously view the world in vibrant colors: “It’s wondrous!” he exclaims of the “prisms of color,” the veritable “rainbow” of “Red! Orange! Yellow! Indigo! Violet! Blue!” that have miraculously transformed his grey world.
His companions on this head trip are equally ecstatic and no less lyrical. After dropping a dose, Luce (a superlatively sophisticated Carmen Cusack) looks around her garden and marvels at even the tiniest ants. “I see a dragonfly!” she exclaims in one color-mad lyric, “A sapphire dragonfly / A brilliant shimmering of iridescent wings.” Despite these vivid hues, hers is the most melancholy of head trips because it unlocks memories of both her dead daughter Ann (Kanisha Marie Feliciano) and her late mother Austin (Michelle Ragusa).
Although less well-known than Grant (Tony Yazbeck), Huxley, and Luce, George Heard (Robert Sella) is good company on the fictional trip that makes up the second act of the musical. A bona-fide thinker, he wrote like a son-of-a-gun, publishing more than 35 books on historical, philosophical and scientific subjects. But for the purposes of this show, his skill as a mentor and guide is what matters, and Sella manages to give expression to these brainy qualities without making him seem like a complete nerd.
For all the fuss about the boys, the only characters who come to orgasm in this orgasmic production are the women. Nonetheless, the men do manage to have a bit of fun. Grant is reminded of one LSD trip involving a vision of himself as “a giant phallus that launched from earth like a spaceship.” There’s also a terrific scene of Grant, Huxley and Heard gamboling in the ocean in swimsuits. Although cleverly staged by choreographer Dorrance, it would have been more terrific – and more theatrically appropriate — if they’d been naked.