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Lolita, My Love

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 25, 2019

The Curtain Call
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Did the creators of Lolita, My Love have some kind of death wish? One: Choose as your source material Vladimir Nabokov's notorious 1955 novel Lolita, a masterwork trafficking in subject matter so salacious it still makes readers nervous. Two: Hire as your composer John Barry, known mainly for his scores for James Bond movies, someone who's never written a Broadway musical before. Three: Try out in Boston, the one town least likely to appreciate a story about an erudite 40-year-old's obsession with his barely-teenage stepdaughter. Not a recipe for success, is it? Lolita, My Love folded in Beantown and hasn't been heard from since, except in very occasional cover recordings.

That it's more than worthy of a second look is borne out by Musicals in Mufti's Lolita, My Love, the closing production in its Alan Jay Lerner celebration. Cobbling it together from six drafts, Lerner historian Erik Haagensen reveals a witty, literate, uncomfortable product, one as intriguing for the questions it raises as for the ways it succeeds and fails: How does Lerner expect to get away with this? Who's the intended audience? Is there no way to bring Dorothy Loudon back for the second act?

Loudon, in 1971, was Charlotte Haze (now Jessica Tyler Wright) — foolish, far less the cultural maven than she thinks, but sympathetic despite her pretensions. Her daughter Dolores (Caitlin Cohn) is, at first, a normal, sassy kid. But when their new boarder appears, Humbert Humbert (Robert Sella), a visiting professor with an inappropriately roving eye for "nymphets," Dolores — that is, Lolita — is in for a shocking journey. Humbert marries Charlotte, to get to Lolita; Charlotte dies in a possibly suicidal freak accident; and Humbert and Lolita undertake a journey punctuated by Nabokov's satirical notions of midcentury America, along with his verbal elegance, puns, poetry, and commentary, all as misleadingly related by Humbert. Following the pair is Clare Quilty (George Abud), a reprobate possibly as vile as Humbert, and also a walking manifestation of Humbert's id.

What a layered work. We can't trust Humbert, so Lerner, in a post-closing rewrite, cleverly introduced a Dr. John Ray, a psychiatrist to help wrest the true story out of him. Dr. Ray was intended as an offstage presence with a voice-of-God mic, but now he's onstage, and transformed into Dr. June Ray (Thursday Farrar), an Oprah-esque voice of reason. Humbert's narration, some of it verbatim Nabokov, keeps wandering into fantasy and deceit, and the good doctor keeps roping him back to reality.

Lerner is unblinking about depicting the unsavoriness of it all, and Barry, it turns out, was an instant master as a musical writer. It's a romantic score (disturbingly at times), with trendy early-'70s soft rock and sophisticated musical scene writing. There's one uncomplicated, traditional-musical-comedy moment of pure pleasure, and that's "Sur Le Quais," Charlotte's tuneful delusion that she has found a loving mate and ideal stepfather in Humbert. There are other gems: "In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen," Humbert's gorgeous memory of a failed long-ago love, which explains and somewhat humanizes this monster; "Saturday," Lolita's regular-kid celebration of a day off; "Dante, Petrarch, and Poe," Humbert's selling to the community of his nymphet predilection as a perversion grounded in noble literary history. Humbert's and Lolita's journey, as dramatized in a scene-song called "How Far Is It to the Next Town?", goes on too long, and there's no way to end it. But the same arguably could be said of the source material.

The writing's smart and enveloping, as we'd expect from a master like Lerner; it's just about something profoundly disturbing. Emily Maltby's direction, clarifying the truth vs. Humbert's version of it and framing the action, via Dr. Ray, in a recognizable moral universe, is a huge help. So is Robert Sella. His Humbert — attractive, sophisticated, blasé, calculating, a prime slab of meat to throw to a simpleton like Charlotte —is wonderful casting. And with his excellent singing of the fine likes of "Farewell, Little Dream" and "Tell Me, Tell Me," he even summons up some vulnerability that help us care about Humbert, a little, until we remember he's a pedophile and a murderer. Cohn, while not Lolita's age, looks it, and makes her horrifying journey seem very real. Abud, in a difficult role, humanizes Quilty as much as possible and sings well. So does Wright, nailing the one certified show-stopper and transforming what could be a caricature into something reassuringly human.

Will Lolita, My Love ever work? Probably not — the subject matter is just too upsetting, and even Haagensen's expert blending of drafts can't obscure some structural liabilities. The opening number, given to Quilty, comes out of nowhere and is about nothing relevant; Act Two feels static and anticlimactic, and not just because we miss Charlotte; some intended punchlines don't land, maybe because the surrounding atmosphere is so creepy. But talk about fascinating flops. Ken Mandelbaum described it in Not Since Carrie as "both a complete mistake and a superb adaptation." That still goes, and how many chances are you going to get to experience it? Thank you, Musicals in Mufti.

Lolita, My Love
Through March 3
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix