Many people are averse to musicals, claiming people don’t really break into song and dance in daily life. Well, I don’t know about you, but I always tap dance my way to J Street and sing “soda please” to the worker at Chick-Fil-A. OK, so I’m lying. But if you don’t think a musical can justify characters singing and dancing, you need to see “Se?or Discretion Himself,” a new musical now playing at Arena Stage.
“Se?or” delights the audience with all the joy and pizzazz of a typical American musical and all the real ethnic flavor of a trip to Mexico. Even those who rightly feel too cool for showtunes will find themselves tapping their toes to the spicy, authentic Latin music and dance.
Se?or Discretion is Pancito, the town baker who becomes the town drunk after his beloved wife dies. Pancito’s problems multiply when Hilario moves into town and opens a new, modern bakery that kills Pancito’s already dwindling business. Add to this rivalry a love triangle between Pancito’s daughter, the budding beauty Lupita, her teacher, Martin, and Hilario, and you’ve got yourself a pretty standard Broadway plot.
Pretty standard, but not totally. What makes “Se?or’s” plot more interesting than those of other Broadway shows is the unique Mexican setting. Spanish words pepper the script, and the cast is almost entirely Latino – something truly rare for a mainstream musical. Shawn Elliott is excellent as Pancito, playing the simple man as both an illiterate drunk and a truly compassionate, intuitive person. Elliott has that commanding stage presence that immediately draws an audience in.
The other standout in the cast is John Bolton, who shows viewers the serious criminal and the hilarious eccentric that is Hilario. Elena Shaddow plays Lupita perfectly, being careful not to overdo the girlish giggles. The rest of the cast is filled out with terrific dancers and singers who perform at a Broadway level.
“Se?or” blows a breath of fresh air into the world of musical theater – which is ironic because it was written in 1968. The unfinished script was shelved back then by composer Frank Loesser and was just resurrected a few years ago when his widow, Jo Loesser, brought the script to Arena Stage. The Arena was at that time producing another Loesser musical, “Guys and Dolls.”
That’s right, people-this by the guy who wrote “Guys and Dolls,” one of the best-known musicals ever. And this show is just as good, making Arena’s world premiere of “Se?or” that much more exciting.
Some of the credit for this exceptional show goes to Culture Clash, a group of three Latino comedians who helped edit the nearly 300-page script into a more accessible show. Their efforts are apparent in the show, which is now filled with contemporary references that flow seamlessly with the original text. The show clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, but you’d never realize it as the cast wows you with beautiful dancing, an engrossing script and catchy music.
And it’s not bad catchy, either, like the kind of generic, formula-derived showtunes of which Broadway seems so fond. Loesser is known for writing music that fits well with the play. Whereas “Guys and Dolls,” set in 1920s New York, features authentic jazz, “Se?or” is composed entirely of Mexican tunes. Whether it’s a slow Mexican ballad or an upbeat dance, Loesser perfectly captures a surprisingly exotic, passionate music of Mexico.
Instead of creating a bombastic, showy set, Arena rightly uses the beauty of authentic Mexican architecture to bring the audience into the fantastic culture of the play. The set features a beautifully tiled floor, as well as model adobe houses lining the perimeter of the stage to suggest a quaint village.
Authentic touches succeed in the dancing, too, which relies heavily on real flamenco and Mexican dance instead of typical Broadway jazz and tap. Director Charles Randolph-Wright uses the theater-in-the-round space beautifully, creating interesting and diverse stage pictures.
So grab a margarita and head over to Arena for a hot Latin show that is nothing short of fabuloso.
“Se?or Discretion Himself” is playing at Arena Stage through May 23. College students can get $10 tickets on April 22. See www.arenastage.org for more ticket information and showtimes.
This article appeared in the April 22, 2004 issue of the Hatchet.