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Señor Discretion Himself

by Rich See

Did you know it is very lonely being a saint?
---Shawn Elliot as Pancito

Shawn Elliott as Pancito, Ivan Hernandez as Martin, and John Bolton as Hilario Gomez. Photo by Scott Suchman.
S. Elliott, I. Hernandez and J. Bolton
(Photo: Scott Suchman)

I'll be honest, I hate writing bad reviews. And unfortunately, I knew I was in trouble when at the press performance of Arena Stage's newest production Señor Discretion Himself an audience member turned and assured me that -- this was a very risky production, the theatre had gone out on a limb by risking offending white, ultra-liberal theatre-goers to speak from a South Park (TV show) perspective that verged on patronizing in order to make a point, and they felt whole thing was refreshing. I didn't have a clue what the person was talking about. Had we seen the same first act? Perhaps I was missing the entire purpose of the piece watching this "lost" Frank Loesser musical. I'm not sure, but the whole production simply wasn't inspiring me to jump up and give the play a standing ovation -- which the rest of the audience did most happily.

Señor Discretion Himself story line goes as follows: Pancito, the illiterate baker and town drunk, happens to have an incredible memory when he is sloshed and inebriated. So when his youngest daughter nightly reads the evening newspaper to him, he awakens the next morning spouting off seemingly prescient wisdom to the other uneducated town folk. One night, in a drunken rage, he asks the town scribe to write a violent, threatening letter to Hilario to stop the older man's attraction towards Pancito's 15-year old daughter, Lupita. Instead of writing the cursing letter, Martin the scribe, who is a non-violent philosopher, writes an appeal to the other man's higher sensibilities. Pancito signs the letter and it is delivered to Hilario. The words touch the heart of Hilario who soon tells the village about Pancito's generous discretion and estimation of an obsessed man's flawed character. At the same time, an image of the Virgin Mary appears in a loaf of Pancito's bread and Pancito seems to be channeling the voice of Cicero and other wise men. The town's three priests decide this is the miracle they've been praying for and conspire to get the faithful returning to mass and putting money in the donation box. Everyone in the know determines to keep the charade up for various reasons and comedy, madcap fun, true love, and arson ensue.

On the upside...there is a great deal of humor in the script. Nods to the Catholic Church's priest scandal, mushroom hallucinogens, Lolita, Frank Loesser himself, the Iraq War, and various sight gags all bring laughs. The cast includes some amazing voices -- Ivan Hernandez (who plays Martin), Doreen Montalvo (the witch doctor Curandera), Margo Reymundo (Carolina) and Elena Shaddow (Lupita) all have voices that soar. Thomas Lynch's set is lovely with a blue tiled floor and southwest design flavor. Small buildings surround the perimeter, lighting up for the night scenes, and creating a Spanish town center, promenade-like space. Michael Gilliam's lighting off-sets the stage very nicely. The Latin-infused, Mariachi-tinted musical arrangements are infectious. And Act Two picks up steam considerably as the plot begins to progress.

It's obvious Arena Stage has spent much money and attention on the production. They've hired a host of technical experts, including Cher's choreographer form her "I'm never saying good-bye" farewell tour. They've thrown an aerialist up in the air for a couple of minutes, popped somebody out of the same gopher hole they used in A Man's A Man, pulled things out of floor crevices, and it's all...okay. The dance numbers are very authentic. The costumes quite colorful. The two minute aerialist is entertaining. However, at two hours and forty-five minutes, the story needs to be tightened. While the authenticity is wonderful, the Spanish accents make it, at times, hard to understand what is being said. The acting is terrific, but the characters, as written, are not compelling and some are simply annoying. The songs are nice, but some sound as if they've arrived from other musicals. There is much good in the production, but because it was originally written in the 1960's and has been somewhat updated to make it more current, the entire piece has a strange time-warp sensibility. Like one leg is in the 60's and another is in the 21st century. This is, after forty years, still a work in progress.

Although billed as the lost Loesser musical, in actuality Señor Discretion Himself was never lost, but being held by Mr. Loesser's widow who has been waiting for the right people to come along and turn Frank Loesser's dream into a reality. Interestingly, Mr. Loesser gave up on Señor Discretion Himself finding he had reached a brick wall with the piece and being dissatisfied with what he had created. Now, although I personally think people should respect an artist's vision -- even if that vision is to not publish a creative work -- I do honor the desire to see Mr. Loesser's last artistic project see the light of day. However, I couldn't help thinking: this piece needs to be in a workshop much longer.

With an initial script of three hundred pages, Arena hired the trio of artists/writers, Culture Clash, to update the book. If you add in the director, Charles Randolph-Wright; Mr. Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser; and Brian Cimmet, the Musical Director -- all of whom are acknowledged as having input on the script or score -- that's six people pulling at an artist's vision. A vision that the piece's original creator no longer has input on. The old adage "too many cooks spoil the stew" holds true. Does that mean that Señor Discretion Himself shouldn't be staged? Absolutely not. It just means that this musical needs to be honed in front of smaller audiences, tweaked, developed, and then mounted on a full scale basis. Because for all it's energy and vigor, it's still not realizing its full potential as a musical. While Arena did a reading of the play in their "downstairs" program series, this musical could be incubated to whittle the entire thing down to a more focused experience. It seems though, this is the workshop and the audience is paying to watch the evolution.

Señor Discretion Himself
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Frank Loesser and Culture Clash
Based on a short story by Budd Schulberg
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
with Doreen Montalvo, Shawn Elliot, Tony Chiroldes, Carlos Lopez, Robert Almodovar, Margo Reymundo, Elena Shaddow, Ivan Hernandez, John Bolton, Diego Prieto, Eduardo Placer, Steven Cupo, Lynnette Marrero, Laura-Lisa, Rayanne Gonzales, Deanna Harris, Venny Carranza
Choreographer: Doriana Sanchez
Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements: Brian Cimmet
Dance Arrangements: Joey Arreguin
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Sound Design: Timothy M. Thompson
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE, WED, & SUN @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $42 - $60
Opening 04/09/04, closing 05/23/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 04/15/04 performance
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