Lolita, My Love – Yes, THAT Lolita – Unexpected

Well, this is a surprise! Expecting an awkward interpretation of a difficult subject, one is instead met with an intriguing, cohesive musical framed by modestly prodding psychiatric sessions.  (Lerner’s first draft including the approach was later discarded.) The play is unnecessarily lengthy, a second act road trip repetitive. (Why not fix this in rewrites ?) There are clumsy/unnecessary songs. Still, lyrics are articulate, more often clever than “There goes our youth at its youthiest” clunky. Music appeals. Lolita, My Love is an operetta-like piece with gravitas, darkly comic moments and a heroine who takes control of her own life despite the odds.

Terrific credit goes to The York Theatre’s stylized interpretation. Helmed by Director Emily Maltby, the show is attractively staged, its chorus adroitly-if too often employed, characterization credible. Casting by Carol Hanzel is splendid.

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1953 novel Lolita was rejected by multiple American publishers, then issued in France under the aegis of libertarian Olympia Press. Its first person narrative (by an admittedly unreliable character) tells the story of middle aged literature professor Humbert Hubert obsessed with prepubescent girls and of an all consuming infatuation with Dolores, the sexually precocious 12 year-old daughter of his New England landlady. Humbert calls the “nymphet” Lolita. She resembles his first, great, teenage love. “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen.”

Robert Sella and Jessica Tyler Wright

The book is a psychological study often cited as “having erotic motifs,” rather than being pornographic. It was and remains, nonetheless, controversial. Imagine the reaction today outside of a highly sophisticated audience.

Alan Jay Lerner spearheaded this 1971 musical collaboration with composer John Barry (who scored films) between productions of Coco and Gigi. Reasons for attraction to material by the iconic lyricist/librettist remains a mystery.  After multiple cast and creative changes, rewrites, and scathing reviews, Lolita, My Love closed in Boston before a scheduled Broadway opening.

Robert Sells and Caitlin Cohn

Current librettist Erik Haagensen utilized six of Lerner’s drafts to format his version which almost sympathetically bares Humbert’s wretchedness yet clearly identifies culpability. It was his idea to make the court-appointed shrink a woman. MD  Deniz Cordell reconstructed Barry’s score predominantly from tapes and sheet music. Piano and keyboard have the finesse and texture of an orchestra.

“I had a motive (for murder) with the heroic dimensions of a crusade,” Humbert Humbert (Robert Sella) calmly explains to Dr. June Ray (Thursday Farrar). This leads us to tandem flashbacks – one expendable. In search of Lolita, the professor first confronts debauched playwright Clare Quilty (George Abud) presumed her kidnapper. We then go further back to Humbert’s arrival in America (from England). Lecturing at a Vermont college has sent the protagonist in search pf local housing.

Landlady Charlotte Haze (Jessica Tyler Wright) so unabashedly sets her cap for the attractive, sophisticated visitor, she practically salivates on his pristine suiting. The actress is first directed to be excessively animated, but fortunately settles into obtuse, yearning seduction. She sings well, moves well, and elicits empathy.

Disdainful of surroundings and appalled by her predatory behavior, Humbert is half way out the door when he meets Charlotte’s daughter, Dolores=Lolita (Caitlin Cohn). Of course, he’ll stay. Watching Sella is a consummate pleasure. Attraction, adoration, prurience, vulnerability, frustration, rigidity and fury inhabit the actor’s whole being. Subtle body language epitomizes every feeling. Sometimes taut and wily at others in pain, at still others in freefall, every moment is believable. And he sings beautifully.

Robert Sella

Vacillating between preternatural flirt, childish vexation/demand, and threat, Caitlin Cohn’s transitions are principally credible. The actress handles both sexual provocation and tantrums with skill. Self-centeredness comes across. When silent, Cohn remains thoroughly in character.

Humbert marries Charlotte for proximity to Lolita and endures a honeymoon. (Disgust and impatience are palpable.) The widow, being no fool, has decided to send her daughter to boarding school. Her husband sings of murder. A fortuitous, accidental car crash prevents his having to go to the effort. He and freshly minted stepdaughter Lolita take off away from prying eyes, first, pointedly to a hotel, then a college where he’ll teach.

Lolita attends school under an assumed name. Instead of feeling secure, her “guardian” never knows where the girl is and lives in a state of abject suspicion/jealousy. They move on again and again. It turns out the deceptive/manipulative child has her own agenda. An escape, search, and then murder ensues.

The fly in this already sticky ointment is Clare Quilty. Played by The Band alumnus, George Abud, the wealthy, degenerate, 1970s writer is as flamboyant and reckless as they come. Phone calls made to Humbert in various impersonated guises are so over the top, one is incredulous that the professor doesn’t see through them. No fault of Abud, this is, to my mind, a directorial misstep. Gleeful lack of repentance and taunting moods emerge effective. Singing is excellent. The actor moves like an entitled, often stoned snake.

Gorge Abud and the Company

Director Emily Maltby endows the piece with a plethora of wonderful moments. When Lolita lays on her stomach in the grass – “Oh, that dorsal view!” – Humbert looks at her like a meal. Yanked into a dance by Charlotte, jerky push/pull is imbued with repulsion and pathos. Periodically, Humbert’s analyst enters a described scene to look closer at someone and/or comment. (I swear it works.) A red herring bottle of arsenic is introduced with flourish. Humbert and Lolita touch each other’s new robes in momentary freeze frame…

The production has no set and minimal furniture, but its few props are imaginative and the use of kazoos, a hoot.

Photos by Bem Strothmann
Opening: Robert Stella and Caitlin Cohn

Musicals in Mufti presents
Lolita, My Love
Book and Lyrics-Alan Jay Lerner
Music-John Barry
Based on the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Script Edited by Erik Haagensen
Score Reconstruction/Music Direction-Deniz Cordell
Directed by Emily Maltby
Through March 3, 2019
The York Theatre

Coming Up: In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’
Josh Ellis and Peter Filichia’s First-hand memories of shows on-the-road try-outs. 5:00 pm March 2 between performances of Lolita, My Love.

LOOK FOR: The York’s mainstage production of Enter Laughing
Libretto-Joseph Stein, Music & Lyrics Stan Daniels based on Daniel’s play
From the Carl Reiner book
May 7- June 9

About Alix Cohen (582 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.