As composer Michael John LaChiusa prepped the Texas-sized “Giant” for Gotham later this year, it must have been refreshing to switch off to a project that could have been titled “Tiny.” “Los otros,” his collaboration with librettist-lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, presents two modest characters performing modest, mostly sung monologues on their modest 20th century California experiences. Thanks to the immodestly talented Michele Pawk and Julio Monge, it all goes down smooth, though the physical production is overscaled, and both theme and characters start to evaporate in the mind before you even hit the Mark Taper’s lobby.
First up, Pawk’s Woman details three encounters with Mexican culture: as an Army brat encountering a family illegally entering El Norte circa 1952; as a single mom visiting Tijuana to bring back a housekeeper in her trunk; and years later in a rummy phase, coming on strong to a sensitive teenager. (That last isn’t quite as creepy as it may sound.)
Pawk possesses that insistent Gwen Verdon vibrato that constantly threatens to veer away from the note and often does, though it clutches the heart much as Verdon used to. (She’d be marvelous in a revived “New Girl in Town.”) She gives way to Monge’s silkier sound as a self-described “gay septuagenarian Latino accountant,” who suffers some kind of medical episode in the shower but manages to describe how his migrant worker family spent the hot summers of WWII.
The title “Los otros” almost promises pretentious ambition, but happily this is no greatest-hits cavalcade of Anglo-Latino cliches. Coyotes don’t lead innocents into fatal ambush; no one tosses in glib references to Zoot Suit riots or Cesar Chavez.
Instead, what’s played out is mostly wholesome and always specific: three little girls’ efforts to sneak food to silent strangers in the desert; the joy of V-J Day as seen from the perspective of Santa Rosa plum pickers. It’s all very down to earth. Fitzhugh’s workmanlike lyrics are bright, and La Chiusa weaves in distinct musical styles — bebop for wartime; pop-infused jazz for the 1960s — to carry us along on a gentle but never bravura waft of melody.
All this ordinariness, however, cuts both ways, for “Los otros” is insistent on withholding anything dramatic we could sink our teeth into.
The anecdotes, though engagingly shaped by helmer Graciela Daniele, all lack a payoff commensurate with their length and with the ominous signals Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations keep sending. Neither character is much moved or changed by the events they narrate (with the exception of the woman’s descent into dipsomania, which Fitzhugh doesn’t adequately establish). The tales end without landing.
At the same time, all the scenic majesty seems out of whack. Christopher Barreca’s set offers glimpses of devastation cut into vast projected panoramas of fruited plain. Overhead is hung a staggering array of found pieces of junk, mostly old chairs, while below Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer offer sumptuously moody lighting effects (a latenight warehouse setting is particularly impressive). Yet none of it ever really clicks into place with theme, such that each reinforces the other.
“Los otros” eventually gets around to making its otherness statement — there are no “others”; we’re all the same — which is welcome in these fractured political times but falls short of achieving the intended emotional impact, for all the pleasure to be found in Pawk and Monge’s company.