Off-Broadway Review: “Lisa and Leonardo” Goes into a Tailspin at the New York Musical Festival at the Duke on 42nd Street

Off-Broadway Review: “Lisa and Leonardo” at the New York Musical Festival at the Duke on 42nd Street (Closed on Friday July 28, 2016)
Music by Donya Lane with Lyrics by Ed McNamee
Book by Ed McNamee, Donya Lane, and Michael Unger
Directed by Michelle Tattenbaum
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Never has a musical been so at war with itself than is “Lisa and Leonardo,” the new musical that finished its run at the New York Musical Festival on Thursday July 28, 2016. It is difficult to know how a talented and experienced creative team could create a musical that in almost two and a half hours’ time fails to find a center and a clear meaning for its existence. That is unfortunate for the exceptional cast who – despite their collective craft – seem adrift on a stage cluttered with disconnected concepts, scattered props, and absent a purposive dramatic arc.

“Lisa and Leonardo” focuses on only one – perhaps the most likely – back story for the painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa: the subject of the painting is Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo who becomes enamored with da Vinci and has a child with him. This could be an interesting subject for a musical but, in order for that to happen, several things would need to happen – none of which is extant in “Lisa and Leonardo” in its present form: interesting and well developed characters; believable and engaging conflicts; an attractive setting; and rich, enduring themes.

The musical’s principals are all exceptional professionals: unfortunately, “Lisa and Leonardo” does not provide them with a suitable project to properly exercise their craft. Lisa (“Bright Star’s” Lizzie Klemperer) and Leonardo (Timothy John Smith) are flat characters without depth and their conflicts poorly developed. The same is true for the remainder of the cast: no character development and no way to find ways to care about them. What is “Lisa and Leonardo” about? The moat around Pisa? The silly antics of a vapid character like Isabella D’Este (a character wasted on Marissa M. Miller)? And why is it not more about the significant relationship between Leonardo and his lover Salai: the show’s creators hand the talented Ravi Roth one of the most uninspiring LGBTQ characters imaginable.

The book is uninspiring. The music is sometimes a melodic reprieve; however, the lyrics are inconsistent in quality. Musical numbers that work are Lisa’s “How the World Looks to Me;” Lisa and David’s (Keaton Tetlow) “If We Decided;” and “Fixed to a Star” sung by the full company. Musical numbers that are numbing at best are “Can You Capture Her for Me;” “From the Master’s Hand;” “How Long Does It Take;” and “All Dressed Up Like Soldiers.” None of these numbers contribute to the progression of the plot and contain oddly uninspired and awkward choreography by Jonathan Cerullo.

It is impossible to know why the “best schemes” of the creative team went “aft a-gley.” Perhaps they launched the show before it was ready for an audience? Perhaps the team itself was at odds about the direction of the musical? Perhaps the blame lies at the feet of the director (Michelle Tattenbaum) who could not possibly have watched the show from a variety of angles in the Duke on 42nd and not seen actors completely visible in the wings waiting for their entrance? Perhaps the scenic designer (Reid Thompson) and the props master (Kate Testa) do not realize how distracting their work is – why, for example, does Francesco’s and Lisa’s home need to be relocated from one end of the stage to another requiring bolts of hanging fabric to be moved across the stage? Whatever the cause, “Lisa and Leonardo” requires a fresh coat of paint before it’s portrait is ready for viewing again.