Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Lolita” was a problem from the beginning because of its touchy subject matter despite its brilliance, but it eventually was regarded with the stature it deserved. Stanley Kubrick, with a screenplay by Nabokov, brilliantly nailed the essence of the novel in the 1962 film version. A musical version with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by John Barry had a brief run in Philadelphia and Boston in 1971, but closed before it could reach Broadway. Now The York Theatre Company is reviving the work (February 23-March 3), the third in its latest Musicals in Mufti! series honoring Lerner’s work on the occasion of his centennial. It is definitely worth this fresh look in the concert style staging, with the script edited by Erik Haagensen, score reconstruction and musical direction by Deniz Cordell and direction by Emily Maltby.
So what’s the verdict? The challenge is to get the tone of Nabokov’s vision right. Humbert Humbert is still a pedophile in love with 14-year-old Lolita. But one key is that Lolita is no little innocent. She is a c-teaser and at first comes on to Humbert, sensing his weakness and tempting him, although she later rebels. Nabokov is delving into satire, both in the relationship he depicts, and his view of America as Humbert leads Lolita across country and Lolita outfoxes him with her own budding agenda. This is no ordinary pedophile story.
That constitutes a powerful problem for a musical version. What’s evident in the first act of the new reconstruction is that the right tone is captured—so far. Dolores “Lolita” Haze is played by the excellent Caitlin Cohn, who although 23 years old, looks and acts so much younger that she makes you easily accept her as the nymphet. Robert Sella gets Humbert right too, as he is clearly enchanted by Lolita, with the attraction turning into an obsession. Jessica Tyler Wright is terrific as Lolita’s brassy widowed mother, Charlotte Haze, in love with Humbert, who is staying in her home while on a lecture trip to address literary groups. Humbert has his own perspective. He cynically gets married to Charlotte so, as Lolita’s stepfather, he can have access to her.
The story is told in flashbacks as Humbert recounts it to a psychiatrist after he has been arrested for murder. There are some delightful scenes in which Humbert imagines ways to kill Charlotte, but he doesn’t have to. She dies in an accident. We learn ultimately that he has killed the intrusive Clare Quilty, (played way over the top by George Abud), with whom Lolita winds up in a relationship.
The songs pick up the right moods. Humbert sings “I’ve Found You at Last” and “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen.” Charlotte and Lolita bicker and sing, “The Same Old Song.” Lolita sings “Saturday.” Quilty has an early number “Going, Going, Gone.” There is a lively singing ensemble of performers who play various roles. As the plot progresses Lolita enters the Beardsley School for Girls, but after her mother’s death, Humbert, taking control, leads her through cheap motels (one ensemble song is the funny “At the Bed-D-By Motel”), apparently has sex with her (he notes she was no virgin), and everything escalates into trouble.
The difficulty with the work—and I speak of the musical itself, not this presentation—is that as it grows more and more complicated and serious, Nakokov’s satirical vision is overshadowed, and the right tone that we experience in the first act, is lost. Although there still are some good numbers that Lerner wrote, the story turns primarily nasty and more like a young woman trying to get away from the relationship with a pedophile and yet get money from him when she is pregnant with the new man in her life.
This viewing demonstrates that “Lolita, My Love” is no forgotten masterpiece, but an interesting attempt to make a musical out of a difficult subject. I think people still can be put off by the pedophilia, but the musical strives to be more than that in the vein of Nobokov. Nasty subjects can make good musicals—witness “Sweeney Todd.” One can commend all concerned for enabling us to evaluate what Lerner and his collaborators were sincerely after. Their goal was surely worthy of the try, as this York production illustrates. At Theater at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street at Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5720. Reviewed February 25, 2019.