Turning Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita into a musical took incredible chutzpah. The show hadn’t made it to New York until the York Theater Company’s Musicals in Mufti series took it on. Despite a score by John Barry and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, the show newly revised and restored by Erik Haagensen remains a curio.
The novel and show concern themselves with Professor Humbert Humbert (Robert Sella) with a penchant for teen girls. Whilst teaching in Vermont, he spies young Lolita (Caitlin Cohn) and falls for her. He quickly marries her mother Charlotte (Jessica Tyler Wright). Charlotte suspects Humbert’s motivation for the marriage and uncomfortable with his fixation, rushes off to her lawyer. Alas, a car accident does her in. Humbert seduces Lolita with promises of perfume in a seedy motel. There they run into Clare Quilty (George Abud) a writer and director who suspects Humbert is up to no good with Lolita. Humbert’s jealousy with Quilty and other men overwhelms him and results in murder. The musical is framed as a psychological exploration with Humbert discussing the plot with psychologist June Ray (Thursday Farrar).
I applaud York Theater and Musicals in Mufti for the restoration and bringing the production to New York. There’s much to admire in director Emily Maltby’s presentation. Sella is appropriately obsessive. He alternates charm, guile and sleaze. But as the center of the musical, he’s a difficult protagonist to relate or feel for. The show has no moral center. The psychologist device – a buffer and commentary for the audience hardly judges or offers much push back to Humbert. Quilty is a narcissistic writer obsessed with his own work, while also hounding Humbert mentally. Abud is brilliant. He plays Quilty with a Bugs Bunny patter. The characterization is boundlessly entertaining but there’s too little of him.
As Lolita, Cohn is youthful and beautiful and she sings sweetly. In a few short moments, the audience and Humbert fall for her. But the character is a cypher, more petulant teen than seducer. She’s too pliable and willing. She’s a device to set the plot in motion but nothing much beyond that – again the role is under-written. We never see her engaging with other teens male or female. So the possible unfaithfulness to fuel Humbert’s jealousy is spoken of but never seen.
Lerner’s book is turgid. The run-time of three hours is too long. It’s as if he forgot he was writing a musical with long patches of exposition without song. And some of the songs are snippets versus full numbers. “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen” Humbert’s ode to young ladies of his past is well done. The multiple iterations of “At the Bed-D-By Motel” wear thin quickly but the game ensemble plays the number beautifully and playfully. Abud’s rendition of a break up (“March Out of My Life”) is fun and well staged.
Lolita, My Love is best for those who must see the entire Lerner cannon or the theatrically curious. Thank you to York Theater for producing it.
Photos: Ben Strothmann
The production plays through March 3 at the York Theater. Tickets and more information at https://yorktheatre.org