An indelible memory from a Michael John LaChiusa musical used to be the sight of Vincent Van Gogh (Jason Danieley) sitting in his bathtub and singing the score for The Highest Yellow in a 2004 production at Signature Theatre.
Now, that may have been replaced by the soaring, heart-melting finale of Los Otros, the 2012 musical by LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh re-imagined in a new staging at Everyman under the ardent direction of Noah Himmelstein, expertly aided by music director Jon Kalbfleisch (and his 6-piece orchestra) and orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.
It’s the first musical produced in Everyman’s new digs and one hopes they continue to take artistic risks such as this one. Los Otros is more of an intimate chamber musical than a bombast Broadway show. Aside from the Sondheim-esque complicated music, whipsmart lyrics and two towering performances by leads Philip Hermandez and Judy McLane, Los Otros doesn’t knock you flat on your back like, say, the blockbuster Hamilton.
Instead, the power of this show sneaks up on you quietly, unhurriedly. You may find yourself lingering over the music in your head and the storytelling through song in your head long after the curtain call.
Set between 1938 and 1995 in Mexico and California, Los Otros (Spanish for “the others”) combines two tenuously intertwining monologues about 20th century life. Amid set designer Daniel Ettinger’s bold burnt orange Spanish-style filagree screen, Lillian (McLane) begins the show with an incident from her childhood living in military housing south of San Diego in 1952.
The lyric “we are three girls” resonates throughout Lillian’s life story as she tells of them sneaking food to a silent Mexican family hiding in a cave before escaping to America. Although this happened decades ago, the idea of “us versus them” and the treatment of illegal immigrants could not be more pertinent.
Lillian, a divorcee and struggling single mother of two daughters living in Burbank, seems to drift through life without a plan. She admits not having much contact with Mexicans or Mexican Americans, and even is casually racist, at one point talking about a neighbor as “Mexican…but sweet.” However, every time she encounters “the other,” it stands out in ways great and small.
In 1967, Lillian travels with her then-husband to Tijuana to stash a housekeeper in her car trunk and her sung-through description of the huge room filled with prospects is so vivid you can smell the dust and sunlight. Her time with Madelena is brief and life-changing, but realistically so. When Lillian encounters Madelena again years later, now married and pregnant, she hesitates bringing her daughters along, fearing the barrio.
It is a testament to McLane’s acting chops and her big, full voice that she cannot only handle LaChiusa’s testing score, but can also take the “ew” factor out of a tipsy one-night stand with a Mexican teenage boy. The generosity and vulnerability of her performance makes what could have been creepy, an actual uplifting moment that transcends stereotypes of both the cougar and chicanos.
On the other side is the sublime Hernandez, recounting the life of Carlos, a Mexican immigrant from Carlsbad, California, a self-described well-off “gay Latino accountant” who we first see showering in the middle of the night, as is his habit, and suffering what appears to be a mini-stroke as he struggles with everyday words and is puzzled by the object in his hand—a bar of soap.
Carlos’ story is as similarly down-to-earth as Lillian’s, nothing spectacular, but told with such resonant detail. The musical warms and relaxes as Carlo becomes a child again, eagerly telling of being lashed to a tree during a Mexican hurricane and later his “summer vacation”—picking plums in Santa Rosa with his family during WWII.
Despite the manual labor and racism, it sounds like paradise in Carlos’s eyes—mornings spent picking in the fields, sun-drenched afternoons swimming in the sea and feeling the first stirrings of homosexuality (and acting on them) with his friend Paco, for whom he is in “cahoots.” The joy of V-J for Americans and Mexicans is keenly felt, as Carlos says “us boys take summer like a gift.”
Carlos wavers a bit in later life, although his acutely observed narrative about his gifts-lavishing boyfriend of many years is an affecting lesson about the things we truly cherish and place value upon. Hernandez’s voice has a vibrato that gets you right in the gut and his playfulness and ease in the role are a delight to watch.
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LaChiusa weaves the disparate stories through musical styles—a swingy bebop for wartime, stirrings of pop for the Fifties and slinky jazz for the 1960s. The music and lyrics are lush and masterful throughout, especially in the finale, where Lillian and Carlos come together at last in a rueful, rousing duet that rejoices in the idea of having to “grow up to become the children we were.”
If only the entire production were as smashing as the ending. The two stories don’t converge satisfactorily and way too late in the show. Every time something happens to either Carlos or Lillian—accompanied by musical messages from the orchestra—we think “this is it!” but then it turns out to be another red herring.
When they do get together, the reason why seems contrived and rushed and you long for a number that more adequately portrays their apparently deep friendship. It’s odd this important moment seems so abrupt when the treatment of their other stories is so leisurely.
The message of Los Otros – that we are all different and all the same—is much needed in today’s political climate. If the stories of “the others” sung in the musical informed each other and echoed more across racial and gender lines, you would have something completely, wholly splendid.
Los Otros . Book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Music by Michael John LaChiusa . Director: Noah Himmelstein . Set Design: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler . Costume Design: David Burdick . Sound Design: Ken Travis . Music Director: Jon Kalbfleisch . Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin . Movement: Vincent E. Thomas . Dramaturgy: Johanna Gruenhut . Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall . Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
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