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Theatre in Review: Lolita, My Love (York Theatre Company)

Thursday Farrar, Robert Sella, Caitlin Cohn. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

"How did they ever make of a movie of Lolita?" So read the ad copy for Stanley Kubrick's film of Vladimir Nabokov's alternately celebrated and reviled novel. An even more intriguing question is, How did they ever make a musical of Lolita?

The answer to the latter has teased a relatively smaller complement of brains, since Lolita, My Love crashed and burned in 1971, during its out-of-town tryout. According to Charles Wright's program notes, Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry's Nabokovian entertainment opened to terrible reviews in Philadelphia, shut down for rehab, then moved on to Boston, where the notices were rather better. Ticket sales lagged badly, however; the insurmountable obstacle was that nobody wanted to see a musical of Lolita. (For conservative audiences, it must have been a baleful sign of the times: The man who gave them Gigi, with its charming May-September romance, was now openly plumping for a hero who says, "Although the mature woman stimulates my glands, it's always the passing tot of twelve or thirteen who turns me into a hell furnace of desire.")

Lolita, My Love is the kind of show for which the York's Musicals in Mufti program of staged readings exists: Mufti focuses on lost musicals and none has proved more elusive than Lolita. It is a kind of Holy Grail for hard-core musical theatre fans consumed with curiosity about how such an ambitious project went wrong. It should be catnip for Nabokov fans, as well; after all, in allowing this adaptation, what was the great man thinking? Anyone who has written a musical -- or might be thinking about it -- should also be drawn irresistibly to the York before its brief run concludes next weekend, for Lolita, My Love is the most fascinating kind of flop. As Ken Mandelbaum notes in Not Since Carrie, his magisterial study of flop Broadway musicals between 1950 and 1990, Lolita, My Love is both "a superb adaptation and a complete mistake."

Well, maybe not superb; it's more complicated than that. Much of the exposition-heavy first act benefits from Lerner's acidly clever approach to Humbert Humbert, Continental poet and closet pedophile, and his perverted wooing of the underage Lolita. As in the novel, Humbert, recovering from a nervous breakdown, moves temporarily to Ramsdale, Vermont, where he falls into the clutches of Charlotte Haze, a vacuous, predatory culture vulture and the mother of the surly, not-quite-nubile Lolita. (The musical dispenses with the novel's earlier passages detailing how Humbert came to be the man he is.) The instantly smitten Humbert will do anything to remain near his ideal nymphet, even to the point of marrying Charlotte, who bores him with her rattling, empty conversation and exhausts him with her sexual exertions. When Charlotte dies, in what may be the most fortuitous car accident in twentieth-century literature, Humbert, now legally Lolita's stepfather, takes the girl into his bed, the fatal step into an eddy of corruption that ends in tragedy.

Lerner, an exceptionally witty and cultivated figure among the giants of Broadway's golden age, gets a great many things right. In this version of Lolita, My Love (which has been assembled by the Lerner scholar Erik Haagensen from a half-dozen drafts), Humbert, arrested for murder, tells his tale of woe to the nonplussed psychiatrist June Ray. It's a cunning device, exposing Humbert as an unreliable narrator; it's also an amusing act of impertinence, given Nabokov's famous distaste for what he sometimes called "the Viennese delegation." Railing against his supposed enemy Clare Quilty, Humbert calls him "that tedious, monotonous Smithsonian of lechery/That second-hand anthology of trickery and treachery." Baring his (supposedly literary) obsessions at a backyard barbecue in an alarmingly clever item titled "Dante, Petrarch, and Poe," Humbert muses, "How can you compare/A woman's Chase Manhattan charm/With dusty little toes/A sticky hand, a scrawny arm?" Quilty, looking on appalled, wonders, "Who is that viper/Who likes them post-diaper?"

Feeling a little creeped out? Fasten your seat belts. Some of the score's most effective songs probe Humbert's impossible desire for Lolita. The title tune is an eerily insinuating waltz in which Humbert urges his "little Lolita/Here in my arms/I'll shelter and feed you/Lolita, I need you/Come home." It's the very essence of a pedophile grooming one of his victims. "In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen," which locates Humbert's obsession in a youthful episode, makes palpable a longing that is as enduring as it is impossible to satisfy. "Tell Me, Tell Me," delivered by Humbert to Lolita in the motel where they consummate their relationship, is disturbing in direct relationship to its tone of gentle yearning.

Lerner also has considerable fun with Charlotte, who, on meeting Humbert, sighs, "I've been expecting a European. But you're just English;" praises Keats and Yeats (pronounced "yeetz"); and peppers her conversation with French expressions like "vraiment" (pronounced "vray-meant"). And he is inventive in his handling of Quilty, that weird, amorphous figure, forever on the fringes on the action, who ultimately thwarts Humbert's intentions; presiding over a kind of free-love cult, he delivers the maddeningly catchy "Going, Going, Gone," a kind of lyric perpetual-motion machine that, once lodged in one's brain, threatens to remain there for days.

But if Nabokov achieved a remarkable fusion of Sahara-dry humor, fiendishly clever wordplay, and passion both depraved and pitiable, Lolita, My Love falls apart in full audience view, its humorous (even farcical) elements refusing to mesh with the ugliness at its heart. Lerner and Barry attempted to follow the same recipe as Nabokov, but they couldn't make the ingredients meld. The more real the Humbert-Lolita relationship becomes, the more the audience recoils. In a way, it is a signal demonstration of how material thrives or dies in different formats. It's one thing to read about Humbert's obsession in the privacy of one's room or to see it on a movie screen; in the inherently "hot" medium of musical theatre, he all but reaches out, demanding our complicity -- and it's an impossibly tall order.

It doesn't help that, in striving to spoof America in the throes of the Sexual Revolution, Lerner sometimes stoops to the kind of crass gagging found in late-Sixties sex comedies like The Impossible Years and There's a Girl in My Soup. For example, Charlotte, eager to get rid of Lolita, sends her off for a summer at Camp Climax. One of Lolita's teachers (really Quilty in drag -- don't ask), discussing the school play, says, "Of course, the men in the cast will be culled from that strapping reservoir across the street. After all, the girls are not supposed to handle the male parts." Arriving at the Bed-D-By Motel with Lolita, Humbert is told by a leering bellboy, "Don't worry about that bed. At the medical convention last week four doctors slept on it," adding, "One of them was a lady doctor."

But even in its weakest moments, the spectacle of artists grappling with implacable material exerts an unshakeable grip. Mufti productions receive a grand total of thirty-six hours' rehearsal time, but the director, Emily Maltby, works thoughtfully and well, maintaining a good pace during a lengthy, exposition-heavy first act and rarely pausing to allow for applause after most of the numbers. She has a stunning Humbert in Robert Sella, who, in addition to his effete manner and deft way with an epigram, handles his ballads in achingly controlled fashion; he is, by turns, uncannily seductive, convincingly driven by unspeakable impulses, pathetic in his devotion to his child lover, and oddly gallant when facing ruin. The adult actress Caitlin Cohn plausibly passes for the barely adolescent Lolita, whether cracking wise (Commenting on Humbert's name, she says, "Did your parents run out of ideas?"), dismissing Charlotte as "the blood relative," or becoming a practiced deceiver to escape Humbert's stifling attentions.

The role of Charlotte, that monster of middlebrow culture, is probably hard to bring to life for today's audiences, and Jessica Tyler Wright doesn't entirely succeed, although she applies her considerable belt to "Sur les Quais," Charlotte's dream of cultured living, which got one of the biggest hands at the performance I attended. (As evidenced by a bootleg CD of a live Boston performance that has gone into circulation, the late Dorothy Loudon enjoyed a triumph as Charlotte, stopping the show with "Sur les Quais.") George Abud, late of The Band's Visit, attacks the role of Quilty, that "degeneration gap" figure, with sketch-comedy glee, creating an oleaginous figure and part-time master of orgiastic revels. It's too bad that his Act II number, "March Out of My Life," sung to his mute, deadpan companion, Vivian Darkbloom -- one of the novelist's wicked anagrams -- is easily the most dispensable in the score. Thursday Farrar offers a symphony of silent disapproval as Dr. Ray.

If the darker second act is something of an uphill climb, the musical climaxes with the compelling, nightmarish "How Far Is It to the Next Town?," in which Humbert and Lolita, on the run, make their way through a succession of one-horse burgs and seedy motels. Barry, whose enormous success in film wasn't matched onstage -- he had one major hit with the West End musical Billy; his only other Broadway show, The Little Prince and the Aviator, closed in previews -- supplies this sequence with a driving melody that contains unmistakable portents of doom. It also sets up the finale, which achieves its own kind of tragic grandeur. Lolita, My Love constitutes a daring stab at the impossible, and all thanks to the York for letting us finally get a look at this sometimes brilliant, often misbegotten work. It offers living proof that some failures are more interesting than some successes. -- David Barbour

(26 February 2019)

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