`Senor Discretion': a merry time in Mexico


April 20, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A "new" musical by the composer of Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying would be newsworthy under any circumstance. But what makes Senor Discretion Himself even bigger news is that this sparkling show is truly a poca gema (little gem).

Thirty-five years after Frank Loesser's death, Arena Stage in Washington has given his charming final work its world premiere. A must-see for musical-theater lovers, Senor Discretion is spankingly fresh at the same time that it deserves to be an instant American musical classic.

Arena's production isn't exactly the show Loesser wrote. The songwriter was initially enthusiastic about creating a musical out of Budd Schulberg's short story about a washed-up, widowed baker in a small Mexican town. But as Loesser's daughter Susan recounts in her 2000 biography, A Most Remarkable Fella, her father gave up on the project in 1968, after several attempts.

His widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, never gave up on it, however. After seeing director Charles Randolph-Wright's 1999 revival of Guys and Dolls at Arena, she sent the director the unfinished script of Senor Discretion. Randolph-Wright, in turn, brought in the Chicano/Latino performance trio, Culture Clash to complete and spiff up the book.

Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) was an inspired choice - not merely because of the brio, humor and cohesiveness the group has brought to the script. Along with the overall quality of Loesser's work - which includes hummable tune after hummable tune - another reason this show deserves a future life is because a musical with a Mexican setting and authentic-sounding Mexican music is a rare and welcome treat.

This isn't to suggest, however, that Senor Discretion is merely a niche musical. The story that Schulberg, Loesser and Culture Clash tell has the universality of a folk tale, replete with romantic love; familial love and its responsibilities; and especially, the importance of believing in something, in someone and, most of all, in yourself.

The action focuses on Pancito, an inept baker who, since his wife's death, has become the town drunk. When a rival baker named Hilario arrives in the little town of Tepancingo and begins showing an unhealthy interest in Pancito's 15-year-old daughter, Lupita, the illiterate Pancito fires off a threatening letter, dictated to the local schoolmaster.

Unbeknown to Pancito, the schoolmaster rewords Pancito's profanity-strewn rant, turning it into an epistle whose phrasing is the epitome of discretion. Receiving this letter, Hilario becomes a changed man and pronounces Pancito "a saint." It doesn't take long (just one enthusiastic number, "Heaven Smiles on Tepancingo") for the entire, desperate, backwater town - particularly its three miracle-hungry priests - to join in on the apotheosis of Pancito.

Shawn Elliott's portrayal of Pancito is one of the few shortcomings in director Randolph-Wright's production. Elliott's speech and singing are fuzzy whether his character is drunk or sober, and the pace never fully recovers after the long, eponymous solo, "Pancito."

John Bolton's Hilario, on the other hand, is aptly named; the actor plays him as a hilarious lothario. Ivan Hernandez is amusingly sheepish as the schoolmaster whom Lupita loves. And as Lupita, Elena Shaddow is a revelation - an ingenue with a show-stopping voice that shines in two love songs, "I Love Him, I Think" and "I Cannot Let You Go."

Doriana Sanchez's folk-flavored choreography, conductor Brian Cimmet's mariachi band, Emilio Sosa's colorful costumes and the miniature adobe buildings that line Thomas Lynch's set all add south-of-the-border verisimilitude.

The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser (2003) includes these words from Loesser's introduction to the first draft of Senor Discretion: "To my mind, this show has a mystique to it. I say it that way for want of a Mexican word ... some magic things are going to happen as the play goes on ... " Those magic things didn't happen during Loesser's lifetime, but they're happening now at Arena Stage.

On stage

What: Senor Discretion

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tues., Wed., and Sun.; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat. and Sun., noon selected Wed. and May 4; through May 23

Tickets: $42-$60

Call: 202-488-3300

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