`Senor Discretion' completes Loesser's unfinished musical

Director gives the new work an authentic Mexican flair

Stage: theater, music, dance

April 15, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Director Charles Randolph-Wright can barely contain his excitement while discussing his musical, Senor Discretion Himself, now playing at Washington's Arena Stage. And with good reason.

Randolph-Wright was given a rare opportunity: complete an unfinished production that's the brainchild of the late American musical theater giant Frank Loesser, considered among the most versatile of Broadway composers.

The New York native was asked to finish the musical by Loesser's wife, who was impressed with Randolph-Wright's production of Guys and Dolls, probably Loesser's most famous musical.

"We had dinner and talked about the Guys and Dolls production I did," Randolph-Wright said. "She said she wanted to send me something, but she didn't tell me what it was. When I got it in the mail, I was stunned. Frank's original script was 300 pages. It was like ... turning pages of history as I read it.

"She just wanted to see what I thought. I read it, and I called her back and said that the piece fascinated me and it was something I was interested in developing."

The musical's plot was particularly engaging, Randolph-Wright said.

"It's the story of a man who pretends to be something, and he actually becomes what he pretends," he said. "I love the idea of what we expect people to be in society, because he's a drunk in this piece, but he has great wisdom. Because of what someone does or how they look or where they live, we put certain boundaries on them. What I love is that this is about breaking down those barriers, breaking down those stereotypes."

Loesser fans know to expect good music in any work of his. Randolph-Wright said it's very likely that some of the songs - never before heard - will eventually be recorded.

"This is Frank Loesser's music, so you're going to hear songs that you've never, ever heard before, but they feel familiar because they're classic," he said. "I think there are several songs in this that will become classics, that people will want to record, just like the songs from Guys and Dolls. There are great, great songs in this show. You can't stop singing this music. It's impossible. It's very infectious."

Senor Discretion Himself audiences are also treated to authentic Mexican dances, as well as colorful costumes, Randolph-Wright said. It's a long way from his last work, Anthems, about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. "The world was very gray in that, and this is full of color," he said.

Also on display are the artistic talents of choreographer Doriana Sanchez, who uses Mexican folk dancers in the production. A member of the production crew who watched part of a recent rehearsal was moved to tears, Randolph-Wright said. "He remembers as a kid, his family doing this dance," he said. "You should see the dancers' faces when they do the dances. This kind of movement ... I've never seen it in a musical."

Randolph-Wright called on Culture Clash, a trio of Chicano/Latino performance artists, to help him complete the work, which Loesser left unfinished when he died in 1969.

"Frank wrote the book and the music and the lyrics," Randolph-Wright said. "But he always felt that in anything you do, you want authenticity. Story-wise, it's based on a Budd Schulberg story. But I definitely wanted a Latino writer to come in and redo it. ... I wanted the story to remain a universal story, but I wanted the magic of Mexico."

Randolph-Wright said that it will be hard for the public to discern what's new in the musical. "What is great is that you really can't tell who's who in this - where Culture Clash begins and Frank ends."

The director said he's glad to be part of a musical that highlights the Latino culture.

"I like the idea that it's a Latino musical," he said. "I could only think of a few successful or popular Latino musicals, like West Side Story and Man of La Mancha. Given our world, it's disappointing that there are not more stories reflecting all the different types of people that are in our country, in our back yard."

"Senor Discretion Himself" runs through May 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W. in Washington. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays (except Sunday, May 2, at 6 p.m.); 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. (none on May 2). Tickets are $42 to $60. Call 202-488-3300.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 37.

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