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Lisa and Leonardo
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 25, 2016

Timothy John Smith, Lizzie Klemperer, and the cast
Photo by Matt Monath

If, indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, then Lisa and Leonardo, Ed McNamee, Donya Lane, and Michael Unger's New York Musical Festival work at the Duke on 42nd Street, is at least an hour too long. It purports to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Leonardo da Vinici's creation of the Mona Lisa, but lacks the color, attention to detail, and specificity that have made the painting one of the world's most admired, studied, and discussed over the last 500 years. That the production (which has been directed by Michelle Tattenbaum) goes to extravagant lengths to avoid showing the Mona Lisa at any stage of its development tells you just how imposing that competition is. (Imagine, if you can, Sunday in the Park With George without that painting!)

The book (credited to all three authors) weaves together three stories: Leonardo (Timothy John Smith) painting Lisa Gherardini (Lizzie Klemperer) at the behest of her aristocratic husband, Francesco (Dennis Holland), and then unwittingly falling in love with her; Leonardo's assistant, Salai (Ravi Roth), working with Marchesa of Mantua Isabella D'Este (Marissa M. Miller) to get her an original painting of her own; and the war against Pisa, represented by the (predictably) scheming Machiavelli (Cooper Grodin) and his lackey Vespucci (Brian Owen).

Demonstrating the impact art can have on both popular and political culture is a good idea, but none of the characters is compelling enough to warrant even a fraction of the time they receive, and the various plaintive pouts, portentous scowls, and unwarranted levity that constitute most of the acting are hardly able to fill the gaps. (Only Klemperer, who tempers Lisa's natural innocence with a darker recognition of the role she's to play in history, is even mildly interesting, though everyone sings well.) The score (music by Lane, lyrics by McNamee) is an uneasy blend of The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, without ever reaching those shows' highest or lowest points; it's content to be middling, which may almost be worse. (One song's lyrics, quoted in the program, suggest the general mindset: "He who is fixed to a star / Does not change his mind / In this one perfect work / Find all the rest combined.")

Only one moment allows the material to ascend to something more. Once the Mona Lisa has arrived at its final form, it's discovered by Salai's model, Fresca (Samia Mounts), an incredibly minor character who nonetheless has a lot to sing about with regards to the masterpiece she beholds: "What painting? I see skin / I can see she's lit within, or behind, or inside... / I can almost read her mind / She's lied, she's sinned / She wants to tell me everything / But doesn't know where to begin." Fresca's awe is something we all share when we encounter something that explains us better than we're capable of doing ourselves, and, if only for a couple of minutes, Lisa and Leonardo captures it and renders it in unique theatrical terms. Perhaps the show as a whole can succeed, but it needs to be more like this song and less paint-by-numbers.

Lisa and Leonardo
The New York Musical Festival occupies 7 venues in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Musical Festival Box Office and audience services Is located at 42West NY, 510 West 42nd St between 10th & 11th Avenues
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