Review: ‘Lisa and Leonardo’, a sketch of the musical at NYMF

Asys Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Presented at New York Musical Festival, Lisa and Leonardo, with music by Donya Lane, lyrics by Ed McNamee and book by McNamee, Lane and Michael Unger, has an half-baked quality to it. This circumstance is acceptable if we are ready to look at it as a showcase with roughly sketched out mise-en-scenes and some elements of scenic design. The show definitely has some potential and I can easily imagine it finding it’s audience in an intimate off-Broadway venue. But everybody, and most of all the director, Michelle Tattenbaum, has a lot of work to do. 

Photo: Matt Montath

Photo: Matt Montath

The story is set in 16th century Florence with Leonardo Da Vinci in the middle of it. Timothy John Smith portrays the Renaissance genius with humane softness and serious ADD – the artist and inventor has trouble finishing any of his projects. His apprentice and lover, Salai (fiery Ravi Roth), is helping Leonardo organize his life, but the scatter-brained genius only gains focus when Lisa (Lizzie Klemperer) enters his life. The Florentine silk merchant, Francesco (Dennis Holland), commissions Leonardo to paint his young wife, and so the friendship between the artist and the model begins. 

During the duets of Lisa and Leonardo, “Choose One” and “Chicken Doesn’t Fly”, I thought to myself, what a nice solid story of friendship and creative collaboration between a man and a woman. But to my disappointment, towards the end of the first act the friendship quickly turned to passionate kissing on the table and to pregnancy in the second act. This made up story of the relationship between Leonardo and the subject of the famous painting has a scent of the cheap dime-store novel with a tyrant husband, helpful friend, escape and happy reunion. 

There is a second political plot line focusing on war with Pisa. Although the connection to the romance of Lisa and Leonardo is a little loose, this parallel story features some enjoyable characters. Every number with Isabella D’Este (comically vain Marissa M. Miller) is a delightful and funny showstopper. With support of her entourage and the single roll of red fabric for palace décor, Miller created probably the most lively and consistent character in the musical. 

The scenic design by Reid Thompson, as did everything in this show, demonstrated some interesting ideas but didn’t quite come together. Two taut strings above the stage had interior elements hanging from them, marking different settings: a scrap of fabric for silk merchant’s house, sketches for Leonardo’s studio. As actors entered the stage, they pulled the necessary part from the wings allowing for the smooth transitions without extra people involved. I found this quite elegant and inventive, very much in the spirit of Leonardo’s drawings. 

It seemed odd that we don’t see a single painting in a musical about a painter. Instead, we are forced to look at two banners of a cityscape, presumably cropped out from some picture of the period. They eat up a lot of space on the narrow stage and although they did a simple little trick in the end, they were very inefficient and inexpressive.