Los Angeles Theater Review: LOS OTROS (World Premiere at the Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on June 6, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

¿POR QUÉ?

I have been trying to figure out sixty ways from Sunday’s opening of Los Otros just exactly how to approach a critique. The new one-act musical by composer Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party) and librettist/lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh (Grind) is essentially two sung-through monologues. For about 45 baffling minutes, The Woman (Michele Pawk), a white American, directly relates to us her, um, adventures with Mexicans, her two daughters and two sisters. Then the Man (Julio Monge), who is a gay, natural-born U.S. citizen of Mexican lineage, describes both his childhood in WWII and his relationship with a man who hoards expensive art. The result is something that would be expected at the Hollywood Fringe, not the Mark Taper Forum. Her solo was titled “Tres Niñas,” his was “Dos Hombres,” but the show should have been subtitled, “Un Gran Signo de Interrogación” – one big question mark.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of Los Otros at Mark Taper ForumThere are three questions I ask myself upon critiquing theater: What were they going for? Did they achieve it? Does it work? The answer for Los Otros is: I don’t know. I don’t know. No.

The musical lost me after five minutes. I could hear the actress speaking and singing, but nothing was happening. She just talked. Or talked-sung. Or sung. Or all three. I kept thinking how amazing it was that Michele Pawk actually memorized such non-sequiter storytelling and LaChiusa’s largely atonal recitative music (rarely is there a melody or an intact song – hence, no song list in the program). I just felt sorry for Pawk because the music does nothing to elevate emotion, basically because there isn’t much to work with in the libretto. I admire Fitzhugh’s clean lyrics, but when Pawk sang that “Birds look like pearls,” I thought, Did I hear that right? Birds look like pearls? Well, clearly it was a choice, because – wait, here it comes – Yep! It rhymed with “girls.” Ugh. It was so distracting that my mind wandered: Could birds look like Redwood burls?  Can birds act like churls? Birds look like merles, because they are birds, blackbirds, in fact. Then back to the stage. Focus, Tony, focus.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of Los Otros at Mark Taper Forum

45 minutes later,  The Man comes upon the scene, but his musings were constructed no differently. But he didn’t lose me, because I was already lost. Even with Julio Monge’s sweet, sweet voice and engaging personality, there was no way to connect with these people; the show wasn’t really about them, it was about issues relating to the Mexican-American experience (I mean, c’mon, they don’t even have names). The Man then told of a life where people held him as an illegal alien. It doesn’t matter, really, because the way in which the stories were told was the most alienating part of the night.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of Los Otros at Mark Taper Forum

Also distracting was Pawk’s singing voice, which can best be described as weak, almost as if she was straining. I was concerned that she was losing her voice, but her speaking voice was powerful. But La Chiusa really shined with period pastiches, and Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations were amazing – I have always held him to be on par with Jonathan Tunick. Oh, and look at all of those colorful hats hanging from the ceiling of the theater. Wait, there’s also a chair hanging there. Back to the stage. Focus, Tony, focus.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of Los Otros at Mark Taper ForumThere were some interesting moments as The Woman told us about feeding, hiring and sleeping with undocumented people, but the stories had the same theme: don’t judge these people by their skin color or citizenship status. And what is she doing picking up a Mexican woman from across the border to be her maid…IN A FRENCH SLIP?! And was it necessary to hire Ann Hould-Ward, one of the greatest costumers on Broadway? (Sunday in the Park with George.) How about some local Latino costume designers?

What a relief that reviewers were requested not to reveal the last scene, because I was almost ashamed to admit that whatever denouement had occurred went right over my head. I asked four strangers after the show how they perceived the ending. I received three diverse responses (all different than mine), but the fourth response was a shrug and ”Who cares?”

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of Los Otros at Mark Taper ForumIn the end, I had about ninety minutes to meditate on one word: “Why?” I mean, I understand WHY this musical was commissioned by Center Theatre Group – Tony-nominated writers and director (Graciela Daniele), cheap to produce, politically correct topic – but WHY does it even exist? And does that beautiful desert landscape of set designer Christopher Barreca mean anything? I’ll have to read other reviews as soon as this is published to see if anyone got it.

The most mystifying part of the evening was that some audience members leapt to their feet at the end. Leapt! Were these friends of the cast and crew? Did they get something I didn’t get? Back to the stage. Focus, Tony, fo…Oh, wait, it’s over.

Why?!

photos by Craig Schwartz

Los Otros
Center Theatre Group
The Music Center’s Mark Taper Forum
ends on July 1, 2012
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

{ 7 comments }

Eve Meadows June 6, 2012 at 11:03 am

Wonderful review, Tony. Thanks for your honesty and for pointing out that “the Emporer has no clothes.” I certainly did wonder what those chairs were doing hanging from the ceiling.

Diana Prince June 7, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thanks for the review Tony. I read the reviews in LA Times and Backstage and neither mentioned the weakness of Pawk’s voice! It was unbelievable that the Taper would hire someone who cannot sing. For a musical. But then I thought it was a choice. But with Julio Monge’s great voice, then it became a big distracting question for me. However, surprisingly, I did enjoy Tres Ninas better than Dos Hombres. Pawk is a great actress and really conveyed the moments clearly and I was totally involved.

William June 10, 2012 at 8:49 am

I thought it was just awful, the woman’s singing was so bad it was irritating. I mean, who hires someone to sing that can’t and then gives them fifty minutes to jar?! I couldn’t get past her cackling to enjoy the show. Plus, the set was cheap. Why, Mark Taper Forum, would you torture your season patrons with such junk?!!!! This show is the kind of thing you see in a back alley children’s theatre.

Tom Ruegger June 13, 2012 at 11:55 pm

To William: That’s not fair to compare to back alley children’s theater. Even those performers can sing on key. Our foursome saw it tonight and we were all flabbergasted. It’s a jaw-dropper of a mess.

Bottom line — the entertainment value is negligible.

The review by Tony is right on the money. Tony’s description of the style and singing and written material are all accurate.

It was sort of like an opera except there were no memorable melodies and the prima donna was not a singer. I don’t fault an actress who is cast in a role to go play that role to the best of her ability — I do fault the producers for casting a non-singer in a role that is nothing but singing. What were they possibly thinking?

Our group of four wondered what it all meant.

Perhaps it means The Taper has gone off the rails.

Jose Moreno June 10, 2012 at 3:56 pm

This was truly one of the worst theater productions I have ever seen. Very disappointed, disgusted with CTG. I sat there with people side by side of me snoring, people leaving during what seemed like an intermission. Horrible Writing, direction, everything.

In a Multi-Cultural City where your majority of residents are Latino you offer this?

Now I know why I keep getting E-mails offering complimentary tickets.

Shaz June 24, 2012 at 8:42 am

I just wish I had read this review before driving all the way from Santa Barbara to witness this train wreck.

The only good thing about this production was our great dinner before it at Brasserie.

Shame on you CTG!

Alice Simpson July 1, 2012 at 10:08 am

Right on the nail, Tony. I left before the standing ovation.

CTG surveyed me the next day, and I asked why they put on such a dreadful play(?). I don’t write plays, but I could do better than that. Los Otros goes to the bottom of my list of Worst Plays I’ve Ever Seen in almost 60 years of theater-going. Asked for my money back.

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