The first act of the show is the woman's (the character has no other name). Michelle Pawk has three songs, each of which tells the story of an interaction of her character with some Mexicans. The first tells of when she, as an 11-year-old girl, took some food to a family of illegal immigrants living in a cave. While Pawk is clearly an adult, she tells the story in the present tense, singing in the character of the young girl. She takes on a childish tone to her voice, sometimes even warbling a bit off-key as a youngster might. She then moves to the next story, years later, when, as a divorced mother of two, the woman drove to Mexico and selected a woman to accompany her back (in her trunk) to work as a maid. As the song goes on, we see how much Pawk's character relied on the maid to help raise her children, and how much the maid desperately needed the money she was paid to help her family back in Mexico. It's a story about two people becoming intimately involved in each other's lives by mutual necessity; but it's also a story about trusting the "other," and the limits of that trust.
At some point, you might expect the man of the second act to turn out to have been one of the people from the woman's storyperhaps he was the baby of the family she fed in the cave, or the son of the maid. But as soon as Julio Monge gets started in the second act, and tells us the year his character was born, we realize that the math doesn't work, and we're dealing with someone different. The man's stories are about relations with people from the other sidethe main story he tells is of picking produce in 1945 (the year is key; most able-bodied men were off fighting the war, so the then 12-year-old boy found himself picking up the slack in the fields). The focus here is not on the harsh conditions faced by farm workers, but on the boy's few interactions with the white man running the place. The play isn't about social injustice, but moments of bridging the gap between individuals.
Monge's delivery is a bit softer and gentler than Pawk's. I sometimes felt that Monge was holding back vocally, and at risk of being overwhelmed by the orchestra. But there's a great beauty in his delivery, which has its own potency. When he sings of the day they learned the war had ended, he doesn't scream in the excitement of the moment; instead, he lets the joy wash over him as it washed over everyone in the fieldit builds until it embraces everyone, like the golden sunlight of the set behind him.
Michael John LaChiusa's music takes a back seat to Ellen Fitzhugh's lyrics. Twenty-four hours after the show, I can't recall a single melody, but the pictures the lyrics painted remain vivid in my mind's eye. More than that, the play challenges us to consider our own relations with those people about whom we are almost willfully blind; it draws our attention to something which, by unspoken mutual agreement, we generally choose not to address.
Were that the entirety of the play, Los Otros would be a unique night at the theatrea sweet little musical that takes a path not often travelled. But there is a bit more to it, a final scene which goes off in a somewhat different, and disappointing, direction. It's as if Fitzhugh (who wrote the book as well as the lyrics) chose to address something completely different, rather than finish the musical she was already writing. Perhaps because there are no easy answers to the difficult issues raised by the show, Fitzhugh doesn't even try to provide them. But by instead providing an ending which comes from far out in left field, Los Otros is likely to leave audiences feeling confused and unfulfilled.
Los Otros plays at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles through July 1, 2012. For tickets and information, see www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Edward L. Rada, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director - presents the world premiere of Los Otros. Book and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh; Music by Michael John LaChiusa. Scenic Design Christopher Barreca; Costume Design Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design Jon Weston; Orchestrations Bruce Coughlin; Music Direction Chris Fenwick; Casting Mark Simon; Production State Manager David S. Franklin; Associate Artistic Director Kelley Kirkpatrick. Directed by Graciela Daniele.