In a mythical village tucked in the mountains, lonely hearts flutter with passion before bursting into song. But this is no Brigadoon. No way, Jose. Although it, too, is lost in time, it’s a spartan Mexican town called Tepancingo, where larceny lurks and personal foibles are part of the rich mosaic.
“Senor Discretion Himself” was itself lost in time: Written by Frank Loesser, it had sat untouched and unread since his death in 1969, as his widow, Jo Loesser, waited patiently for the right collaborators to come along. They emerged in the team of director Charles Randolph-Wright, the Latino comedy troupe known as Culture Clash and D.C.’s Arena Stage.
Even the music had been kept under wraps. Thus it is a pleasure to report that Loesser penned an extremely inviting score that offers the variety and class one would expect from the composer of “Guys and Dolls” and “The Most Happy Fella.” There are rousing chorus numbers, tender love songs, funny and sad songs and a regular showcase of Latin beats.
The musical’s love birds let it rip in the show’s standout tune , “I Cannot Let You Go.” Other memorable numbers include the lively “Heaven Smiles on Tepancingo,” the sweet “Wisdom of the Heart” and a gentle tune, “Hasta la Vista,” that is vintage Loesser. His deft touch with lyrics is on vivid display, too.
Loesser’s score isn’t perfect. Some numbers land with a thud, while a few of his more inspired songs seem unnecessarily short. And since he’s not around to tinker, we won’t see any changes in the music of “Senor Discretion.”
As for the book, that’s a different story. In an unusual turn for Loesser, he also wrote the book for “Senor,” adapting it from a short story by Budd Schulberg that was published in Playboy magazine. Loesser made it an irreverent tale in which three utterly bored parish priests decide to spice up their dreary existence by fabricating a miracle involving one of the village’s more infamous residents, the illiterate and perpetually inebriated baker Pancito. Loesser’s book was overwritten and in need of collaboration, but it touched on all emotions.
As reworked by director Randolph-Wright and Culture Clash (the trio of Richard Montoya, Rick Salinas and Herb Siguenza), the book now is an enjoyable but woefully contrived tale festooned with intentional excesses. It’s also clearly a work in progress.
Opening with an apt clap of thunder, it’s a jumbled concoction of pedophilic lust, arson, teenage romance and those priestly misdeeds, most of it played as farce by actors reaching for the limits of stereotypes.
It also reaches for topicality, with a relentless drubbing of the Catholic church (certain to offend some patrons) and even a dig at U.S. foreign policy.
In short, there is too much going on here. Culture Clash should take a machete to the second act, where so many loose ends are tangled.
Yet there is also much to like, especially the show’s light touch with Latino culture. Director Randolph-Wright, assisted by choreographer Doriana Sanchez’s lively dance numbers, generally keeps the action at full tilt, with one pronounced exception — the lead character Pancito (Shawn Elliott), whose perpetual angst and irascibility become monotonous.
The expert cast includes an entertaining John Bolton as the mysterious stranger who eagerly stirs the pot with his unabashed yearnings and sturdy tenor voice. Ivan Hernandez, as the earnest teacher, is effective with vocals, although his character is weak.
But the production really belongs to Elena Shaddow as Pancito’s fetching daughter. Her voice, to borrow an adjective from the show, is fantabuloso. The soprano is exquisite in her principal numbers, “I Love Him, I Think,” and her duet with Hernandez, “I Cannot Let You Go.” Kudos also go to Doreen Montalvo as the witch and narrator.
Set designer Thomas Lynch’s miniature adobe village beautifully rings the four-sided Fichandler stage. Emilio Sosa’s quaint costumes and Michael Gilliam’s lighting complete this colorful Arena production.