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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jon Magaril
The book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh present two vital middle-aged characters, an Anglo (Tony Award winner Michelle Pawk) and Latino (the charming Julio Monge). One at a time, they sing us stories from their lives. Every episode describes how each has been profoundly influenced by relationships with members of the other ethnicity. The theme is an essential aspect of Southern California life that has rarely been used as fodder for a musical.
“Daddy says 'Some girls grow up too fast.' I hope I'm one of 'em.” So begins the “Woman,” (as she is listed uninvitingly in the program) whom we first meet as a young girl. “There's nothing much to do in 1952.” She lives in the San Diego region by the Mexican border. To juice up her humdrum life and do good, she and her two friends secretly bring food to a family of illegal Mexicans who've jumped off a train and scurried into a cave.
In 1967, she find the stresses of being a working mother in Burbank overwhelming until George her ex-husband hatches a plan. He drives with her to Mexico to retrieve a nanny, whom they hide in the trunk of the car. The young immigrant stays in the States for just a short while but makes an indelible impression on the Woman.
After her late-night shift as a bartender in 1977, she deflowers an eighteen-year-old Mexican virgin in his warehouse home while his friends threaten her through the window and then vandalize her car. He convinces her to give her the car keys so he can have it repaired. He surprises her by keeping his vow.
None of these relationships lasts nor are they the stuff of high drama. Fitzhugh's engaging writing demonstrates how these slightly heightened, passing connections can shape a life. The construct is supremely delicate. A nudge too hard towards profound connections between the stories or storytellers would undermine the point. But remaining off-hand throughout would render Los Otros as aimless as the Woman. The balance isn't quite there yet in this world premiere produciton, but it's tantalizingly close.
Nearly through-composed, Michael John LaChiusa's distinctive score reflects the tone of the deceptively casual libretto. There are no traditional musical numbers per se. Instead it is a near constant flow of shimmering recitative that frequently teases at melody.
The prolific LaChiusa has never had a commercial hit yet he's an essential theater composer of our time. A musical chameleon, he favors stories from other eras. Each of the ten scenes in 1994's Hello Again, his first major production at Lincoln Center Theater, takes place in a different decade. The Wild Party, on Broadway in 2000, evoked the vaudeville milieu of the '20's. Last year's Obie Award-winning Queen of the Mist, just out on CD, depicts the first woman to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel at the dawn of the twentieth century.
LaChiusa writes in the style most suitable to the subject matter. His scores reflect their story's period and locale to the extent that those influence his characters. LaChiusa can write hummable tunes (the gorgeous “Tom” from Hello Again and “Way Back to Paradise” from Marie Christine, for instance), but chooses to do so in select moments, usually when the characters yearn for or achieve emotional connection.
In Los Otros, Mexican folk rhythms explode into memorable melodies to express the rhapsodic influence from south of the border in the Woman's life. Unfortunately, the magnetic Michelle Pawk has developed vocal issues in the last decade which limit her ability to express the musical ecstasies the score provides. Pawk, whose work in Hollywood Arms and Cabaret were high points of those Broadway productions, acts the part beautifully, with a bewitching mix of earthiness, grit, and warmth.
Julio Monge fares a bit better vocally as The Man, the son of migrant workers. As a twelve year old, he spends the summer of '45 picking fruit at a Californian orchard where he thrills to his first affair with another boy and the declaration of peace. Then as an accountant in '94, his eyes are opened to a world of beauty by his partner of fifteen years, whose habit of hoarding however is putting them at war. Their swapping of anniversary presents becomes an occasion for tension and connection.
In the present, the Man suffers what appears to be a stroke in the shower and is saved by the partner of now thirty years. During the telling of this episode, the interaction between Latino and Anglo is finally made flesh by the appearance of the Woman.
Monge gives a captivating performance. But a show this off-beat requires indelible performances to land in a house as big as the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum. It needs a production that's close to perfect and it doesn't get it here.
Christopher Barreca hangs chairs and tchotchkes from the ceiling to evoke both the Man's cluttered physical environment as well as the flotsam and jetsam of the Woman's interior life. Panels slide open in the backdrop to reveal varying shapes of desert vistas. This is all to the good. But projections and a few other set pieces start to convey the uncomely clutter that reasonably irks the Man.
On the plus side, Tony-winning lighting legends Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer create a sense of everyday Californian beauty. And Tony-winner Bruce Coughlin's unbeatable orchestrations, luminously played by the band of nine under the musical direction of Chris Fenwick, brighten and expand the show's emotional palette.
Director Graciela Daniele stages simply and effectively. The decision to keep the band hidden from view may have been necessitated by sound or set design issues. Regardless, it is one more element that minimizes immediacy and excitement.
Most damaging is that ultimate meeting between Man and Woman. The connection Fitzhugh forges for them seems forced and desultory. LaChiusa's one unabashed tune of the evening softens the blow. Still, the conclusion helps tip the balance to a sense that this is a minor work.
One hopes changes come, which would hone the writing and presentation of this strangely affecting piece. Like the relationships it depicts, Los Otros has the potential to be a small-scale event of long-standing impact.