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A CurtainUp Review
The Happiest Song Plays Last

"Do you have to leave your doors unlocked?"—Augustin

"Open door, open stove.— Yaz.
The Happiest Song Plays Last
Lauren Valez and Tony Plana 'hoo (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Yaz, the female half of a pair of Puerto Rican-American cousins at the center of Quiara Alegria Hudes' The Happiest Song Plays Last represents the American success story. Of mixed cultural identity and growing up in a poor urban neighborhood, she's college educated and teaches music at the college level.

This is the final final play in a trilogy that began with the 70-minute Eliot, A Soldier's Fugue, and continued with the longer 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning middle play Water By the Spoonful which focused on ex-marine Elliot and also his musically gifted cousin Yaz who's escaped inner city poverty via a college education.

The Happiest Song Plays Last finds Yaz back in the city's tough 'hood. She's given up her comfortable modern high rise in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood, to fix up shabby Victorian home and garden of the now dead Aunt Ginny. Instead of keeping the door safely locked, she's made herself an always welcoming caretaker and soup kitchen for the neighborhood's needy. Her mantra is "open door, open stove."

Cousin Elliot, on the other hand is once again far away in the Middle East— but this time his uniform is courtesy of a film company's costume department and his rifle a prop. His war time experience have landed him a job as a consultant for a documentary film about the Iraq war, bringing him a step closer to fulfilling his theatrical career ambitions.

Though part of a trilogy, with connecting characters and a shared stylistic thread running through all, The Happiest Song Plays Last stands on its own. However, if you didn't see the previous installments, you might find it helpful to read my review of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning middle play Water By the Spoonful before seeing this finale. This would help clarify the personal backgrounds of the cousins, rather than wait for their Skype conversations to fill it in. However, , it won't help to make this concluding play flawlessly satisfying.

The shifts between Philadelphia and Jordan make for a rich kaleidoscopic canvas for Hudes's as always colorful, vibrant characters and dialogue. However, there's just too much going on here in terms of social issues and plot points. Consequently, issues, though all worth exploring dramatically, are so abundant that they several times feel somewhat forced rather than organic. Situations tend to crop up but but are then dropped, notably, Yaz agreeing to friend and neighbor Augustin's plea to be the mother to a child by him rather than just to the whole neighborhood.

My reservations can be countered by the fact that life is full of unexpected twists and turns and situations don't always wind up with all the t's crossed and i's dotted. Even more importantly, this is a beautifully staged production.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has brought out the August Wilson flavor in this young playwright's work. He's also drawn committed performances from the six-member cast. Amando Riesco, as Elliot, the trilogy's switchboard character, is the only cast member who's been in all the plays. Unsurprisingly, he's got the handsome, funny but still trauma haunted veteran down pat.

Lauren Velez as Yaza couples the warm spirit of the aunt whose house she's taken over with that of a feisty social activist. She and the excellent Tony Plana make the unlikely development in the relationship between her and the much older neighbor Augustin almost believable. Anthony Chisholm, a veteran of numerous August Wilson plays is well cast as the homeless Lefty, who pops in regularly for food and shelter in between obsessively acting as a street crossing guard to prevent the repeat of a child killed because there was none.

The Mideast scenes are enlivened by Dariush Kashani and Annapurna Sriram. Kashani plays production assistant Ali, an Iraqi refugee., Sriram is Shar, the movie's American born star who calls herself "one-quarter Egyptian, one-quarter Iranian, with Cherokee, Korean, and wasp thrown in for flavor" which she sums up with "Add it all up, Im nothing." The developing friendship between Elliot and Ali provide some of the play's most moving and incisive moments. The flirtation with Shar, is one of the loose ends that do get neatly tied up before the play's end.

Michael Carnham's two tiered rustic setting serve the shifts between Philadelphia and Jordan well and at one point take on a gorgeous glow courtesy of Rui Rita's lighting. Carnham's balcony accommodates the three musicians, led by composer Nelson Gonzalez whose Latin flavored songs are a wonderful musical accompaniment.

The Happiest Song Plays Last by Quiara Alegra Hudes
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Anthony Chisholm (Lefty), Dariush Kashani (Ali), Tony Plana (Augustin), Armando Riesco (Elliot), Annapurna Sriram (Shar) and Lauren VĂ©lez (Yaz)
Scenic design: Michael Carnahan
Costume design: Karen Perry
Lighting design: Rui Rita
Sound design: Leon Rothenberg
Music director & Composer: Nelson Gonzales
Stage Manager, Ed Herman
Running Time: 2:20 including a 15 minute intermission
Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St
From 2/11/14; opening 3/03/14; closing 3/23/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on March 6th
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