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John Bolton, Shawn Elliott, and the cast
of Señor Discretion Himself
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
The whole thing sounds improbable: a world premiere of a new work by Frank Loesser, one of the giants of the musical stage (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and so on). Loesser died 35 years ago at age 59. The beloved composer-lyricist-librettist labored for several years on Señor Discretion Himself before lung cancer claimed his life -- and, apparently, the show still needs work.

Picking up an unfinished creation is a difficult task at best; it's hard to maintain the integrity of what the artist left behind while hammering it into a finished product without that artist's guidance. As seen in its "world premiere" production at Arena Stage, Señor Discretion Himself is pleasant enough, a happy and colorful celebration that only occasionally displays the famed Loesser magic. Several lovely ballads are potential classics but they are atypical of most of the Latin-tinged music in this score; in fact, they sound as if they could have been written for other Loesser shows.

In the sleepy Mexican village of Tepancingo, a place "that time and God forgot," Pancito -- an illiterate baker who is also the town drunk -- ends up being celebrated as a divinely inspired prophet and an intellectual force. Powered by the machinations of a trio of padres, the town is transformed from a moribund village into a circus-like tourist attraction. Meanwhile, a slick fellow named Hilario comically lusts after the baker's 15-year-old daughter Lupito; he berates himself for his misplaced affections even while ignoring the girl's older sister, Carolina, who has eyes for him.

Loesser crafted a 300-page draft of a script and 17 songs based on a short story by Budd Schulberg that was published in Playboy magazine in 1966. Jo Sullivan Loesser, his widow, loved director Charles Randolph-Wright's dance-driven, fresh take on Guys and Dolls, which Arena staged and toured in 1999 (starring Maurice Hines), and so she presented him with the Señor Discretion material. Randolph-Wright brought in the Chicano-Latino performing and writing trio Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza), whose Anthems: Culture Clash in the District was a hit for Arena in 2002, to shorten, focus and update the book. Arranger Larry Hochman and musical director Brian Cimmet scored the music for 10 instruments (played by eight musicians) and added several unheard Loesser songs that were not written for this show, bringing the total to 20. The additional, unspecified tunes were infused with the mariachi and banda sounds that Mrs. Loesser said her husband had been listening to during the writing of the musical.

Most of the songs in Act I sound thoroughly Latin in rhythm and orchestration. Many of them stop and start again to allow for patter or dialogue to intertwine with the singing in a way that calls operetta to mind. The heavy salsa layering tends to blur individual melodies; an exception is "I Dream," sung by Ivan Hernandez as Martin, the teacher on whom Lupito has a schoolgirl crush. It's a surprisingly contemporary-sounding, Sondheim-like ballad that ends with Hernandez's tenor almost reaching falsetto heights. "Nightmare" is a brief, modern-jazz-infused dance number in which the ensemble is led by the rich-voiced Doreen Montalvo as Curandero and Shawn Elliott as the drunken Pancito; it leads into the aria-like "The Real Curse of Drink."

The first real "show tune" -- the kind of song that Loesser devotees are undoubtedly hoping for -- is "You Understand Me," a lilting ballad sung by John Bolton (Contact, Titanic) as Hilario and Acapulco-born Margo Reymundo as Carolina. By the time it is sung, Act I is just about over: "You Understand Me" leads into "Heaven Smiles on Tepancingo," a memorable, rousing finaletto sung by the full chorus.

Shawn Elliott, Ivan Hernandez, and John Bolton
in Señor Discretion Himself
(Photo © Scott Suchman)
It takes much too long to get to the first song in Act II, "Compañeros." Elena Shaddow as the precocious but pure Lupito sings "I Love Him," a ballad absent any specific Latin flavor but with a lovely melody that could anchor an entire show. In fact, strains of it are repeated several times in the following scene and Hernandez even reprises a bit of the tune before it's finally dropped. Shaddow and Hernandez also sing the lovely duet "I Cannot Let You Go," another non-Latin-tinged song that could stand alone.

Randolph-Wright's direction is stylish and the comedy is successfully emphasized. The pacing is uneven, however, and some of the dialogue-heavy scenes seem drained of energy. The show is being presented in Arena's "in the round" Fichandler space, with Thomas Lynch's diminutive village buildings ringing the brightly colored floor from which set pieces imaginatively rise. Doriana Sanchez's choreography creates flowing scenes of twirling villagers clad in an explosion of red, orange, and yellow costumes by Emilio Sosa.

The puckish show has a modern sensibility and includes several sharp jabs at the Catholic Church; in fact, the only characters with rather shady intentions are the three padres. The men of Culture Clash had hoped to play these roles but the pressure of mounting the show made them change those plans. Bolton manages to keep Hilario a sympathetic figure as the smooth-talking operator struggles against his illicit passions for a young girl -- particularly in the comic tour de force "Fifteen to Eighteen," during which his suffering over a period of three years is adroitly presented.

Shaddow is a bit old for the part of a 15-year old, but she has a beautiful voice and she seems better suited to the role when Lupito turns 18. Elliot gives a problematic performance as an aged man who's drunk much of the time; his characterization frequently translates into lethargy while his husky, wide vibrato and ill-defined diction undermine his singing.

It's telling that the biggest audience response on opening night, next to that for the traditional-sounding "I Love Him," occurred when the three padres unexpectedly broke into a Portuguese-language version of "Luck Be A Lady" from Guys and Dolls. This underscored the fact that Señor Discretion Himself still has a long way to go before claiming our hearts as completely as some of Loesser's other musicals have done.

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