Typically lasting eight to twelve hours, a trip on LSD, because of the distorted perception of time induced by the drug, can feel much longer than it actually is. It certainly does in the new two-hour-and-45-minute musical Flying over Sunset, making its Broadway debut at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, and you don’t even have to take it.
The original two-act show, with book and direction by James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George; Into the Woods; Falsettos), music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal; If/Then), and lyrics by Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), presents an imagined account of three famous real-life figures from the mid-century – writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World; The Doors of Perception); diplomat, congresswoman, playwright, and magazine editor Clare Boothe Luce (The Women; Vanity Fair); and Hollywood movie star Cary Grant – coming together at Luce’s Pacific-coast beach house in Southern California in the 1950s, to share the experience and connection of dropping acid. The fictional premise was inspired by the fact that each of them is known to have experimented individually with the synthetic hallucinogen at a time when it was not only legal, but also advocated for legitimate therapeutic treatment.
In the engaging first act, the well-researched lead characters are introduced one by one, with first-person accounts of their current situations at crossroads in their lives, key points of their backstories, and the issues they want to address in their initial introductions to the mind-altering substance, taken under the guided supervision of author and consciousness mentor Gerald Heard by Huxley and Luce, and of his wife’s psychiatrist by Grant. Under its mind-expanding influence, each has “wondrous” personal visions filled with color and insights that make them want to do it again.
While lunching at The Brown Derby in LA, Luce, Heard, and Huxley accidentally encounter Grant. She asks him to join them, and then suggests that the four fellow “explorers” all gather at her home to drop a dose together in the spirit of communal enlightenment. They do in Act II, belaboring the established plot points and extending the running time with redundant, indulgent, overly long, and tedious scenes of their trips, which add little to the development of the story, the characters, or their lives that we didn’t already know. Bummer.
The top-notch Broadway cast, starring Harry Hadden-Paton as Huxley, Tony Yazbeck as Grant, and Carmen Cusack as Luce, and featuring Robert Sella as Heard, believably captures the personalities, accents, speech patterns, and concerns of their well-known roles, and delivers masterful performances of Michelle Dorrance’s diverse choreography and Kitt’s exquisite score (including their four-part harmony on “The 23rd Ingredient” and Cusack’s powerful heartfelt solos on “Someone” and “How?”), with orchestrations by Michael Starobin and music direction by conductor and keyboardist Kimberly Grigsby. They are given equally fine support by Kanisha Marie Feliciano, Nehal Joshi, Emily Pynenburg, Michele Ragusa, Laura Shoop, and Atticus Ware, who contribute some of the most memorable moments of the show.
Among the standouts are Feliciano and Ragusa as Judith and the Handmaiden from Sandro Botticelli’s Italian Renaissance masterpiece Judith and Holofernes, who have come to life in Huxley’s mind and sing the operatic “Bella Donna di Agonia” with him; Shoop as Huxley’s dying wife Maria, who performs the expressive “The Music Plays On” duet with her husband; Ware, in an extraordinary Lincoln Center Theater debut as the young Archie Leach (the birth name of Grant, whose mother chose to clothe him in a girl’s dress), singing and tap dancing with Yazbeck to the show-stopping Vaudevillian-style “Funny Money;” and the company’s rich rendition of the titular “Flying Over Sunset.”
A lavish design sets the stage for the real locales and people and their LSD-induced imaginings, with upscale period sets by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Toni-Leslie James, colorful psychedelic lighting by Bradley King and projections by 59 Productions, and both natural and eerie transcendental sound by Dan Moses Schreier. There is a lot to enjoy in Flying over Sunset, but the best of it easily fits into the first exhilarating act, without the needless repetition of stretching it to two.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Flying over Sunset plays through February 6, 2022, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $59), go online. Everyone must show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter and must wear a properly fitted mask over nose and mouth at all times when inside the building.
You can watch a montage of the show here: