A richly distinguished team of talents has collaborated on the premiering chamber musical, "Los Otros" at the Mark Taper Forum. Joining forces in the Center Theatre Group-commissioned effort are versatile composer Michal John LaChiusa ("The Wild Party," "Hello Again," "Marie Christine," and the upcoming epic "Giant"); multi-talented Graciela Danielle ("Ragtime," "The Rink," "The Pirates of Penzance"), who has received 10 Tony nominations over the years for her directing and choreography efforts; lyricist-book writer Ellen Fitzhugh ("Grind," "Paper Moon," "Herringbone"), and a pedigreed design team.
Add to this two renowned actor-singers (Julio Monge ["Fosse," "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway"] and Michelle Pawk ["Hairspray," "Bounce," and a Tony victory for "Hollywood Arms"]). The expectations for this production were thus extremely high. Though the low-key 90-minute effort that has emerged is unlikely to generate waves of excitement, it’s a very tasteful piece, yielding a thoughtful portrait of the Latino culture in California.
Essentially two solo one-acts without intermission, which don’t appear to have much direct connection until the end of the evening, the play charts the experiences of two characters, simply identified as Woman (Pawk), who describes her personal history and experiences in the first half and Man (Monge), who does the same in the following segment.
The anecdotes and observations related by the characters -- less narrative-structured than character-focused -- are told in the form of musical monologues. The effect is essentially a tapestry of moods and emotional shadings, as opposed to the typical trajectory of a book musical. This project is determinedly unpretentious in its conception, as it strives for degrees of depth, texture and beauty in its insights into the SoCal Latino culture, by way of two individuals (los otros means "the others") who are social outsiders.
The musical is intermittently successful in that goal, but it requires proper setting of audience expectations. One must accept its simplicity and unconventionality to appreciate its unassuming portraits of two interesting characters.
The first act is actually a reworking of a previous piece by Fitzhugh, called "Tres Niñas," presented in New York in 2008. Pawk plays a forty-something Anglo divorcee from San Diego, living in Burbank, who reflects back on her life in Southern California. She recalls her experiences meeting several Latino citizens, including a housekeeper from Tijuana and the divorcee’s romantic fling with an 18-year old Mexican immigrant.
She relates an incident when she was a young girl in which she and some friends secretly leave food for some homeless Mexican citizens, leading to a poignant and eye-opening lesson for the impressionable youths.
Pawk is a resourceful actor who brings sensitivity, humor, and warmth to her portrayal. Yet the anecdotes are only moderately engaging, and there is little in her material to impart a sense of dramatic progression or deep involvement in the proceedings.
The second act, called "Dos Hombres," which feels more energetic and varied than the first, introduces us to a 75-year-old gay man (played by the far younger Monge), who’s bathing in a shower. He tells about his mother’s fleeing of a hurricane in Mexico and her coming to the U.S., where he was born and raised in Carlsbad, California, working as a grocery stock clerk and trying to assimilate into the American culture.
The focus shifts to the man’s sexual awakening and identity struggles, beginning with boyhood encounters, and including his adult relationship with a man who was a former lover of actress Ava Gardner. Monge is an adept actor who makes the most of the myriad adventures related here.
LaChiusa’s low-key music is less concerned with melody than with mood and texture. This isn’t a musical that will appeal to the Jerry Herman fan club. Those determined to find tunes to hum on the way home should look elsewhere.
Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations are eloquent and appealing, under the fine music direction of Chris Fenwick. Suiting the restrained yet affecting quality of the material, the splendid design contributions include Christopher Barreca’s set, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, Jon Weston’s sound, and lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
"Los Otros" runs through July 1 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 Grand Avenue in L.A. For info or tickets, call 213-628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org