Cluttered, lively and quaint, the zany musical comedy I Spy A Spy is reminiscent of the sort of lightweight material directorial legend George Abbott would have had a go at in the late 1960’s. This show recalls the Abbott efforts How Now, Dow Jones and The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N that William Goldman analyzed in his classic 1969 behind the scenes account The Season. Abbott did his best with those disappointments just as the creative team for I Spy A Spy does.
Our hero José Rodriguez is an illegal young Mexican immigrant who delivers food orders for two Hell’s Kitchen shops and also wears a Statue of Liberty costume for paid picture taking. He dreams of being an actor and is trying to enter “The Face of New York” contest where the prize is $5000. Making his life miserable is the dastardly Prisciliana Espinoza, a menacing scoundrel who smuggled José and his family into the U.S. His parents have since been deported and Espinoza is squeezing him for her full fee.
The two businesses José works at are a pizzeria owned by a Pakistani man and a deli owned by a Korean woman and they alternately banter and bicker. In between these emporiums is a laundromat owned by the bearded Cold Borscht who is a Russian spy. His beautiful young daughter Alina Orlova is also a spy. A romance gradually blossoms between José and Alina, but it’s complicated by espionage including stealing the mayor’s briefcase which contains his tax return and his toupee. Show business types, Homeland Security Agents and mobsters make appearances as well.
The charismatic Andrew Mayer carries the show with his fiery, comical and affective performance as José. Emma Degerstedt exhibits the accomplished talents of a musical theater pro as Alina. Stealing scenes with her Chicago’s Mama Morton-style relish is theater veteran Nicole Paloma Sarro as Prisciliana Espinoza. Delightfully hammy and roaring in a guttural Russian accent is Bruce Warren.
Hazel Anne Raymundo and Sorab Wadia offer mirthful and shaded turns as the Korean deli proprietor and Pakistani pizza maker, respectively. James Donegan makes a fine impression as he infuses a variety of parts with magnetism. Grace Choi, Taylor Fields, Lawrence E. Street, and John Wascavage all vigorously appear in various multiple roles. At the performance under review Conor McShane substituted for Frankie Paparone.
Jamie Jackson and SoHee Youn’s eventful book is too eventful. The 70 minute first act is so crammed with silly incidents, several of which are extraneous making their scenario cumbersome with dullness intruding. The well-drawn stock characters fit the schema of this lighthearted musical with its serious overtones. The dialogue contains a barrage of jokes and gags some of which land while many others thud. The hokey plot has potential but is sidetracked by tangents featuring excessive participation of supporting figures. It all plays out with sporadic momentum.
The score with music by Ms. Youn and lyrics by Ms. Jackson is overall a collection of well-crafted songs with some jaunty showtune-style numbers but there’s also overdone lachrymose power ballads.
Director and choreographer Bill Castellino has solidly mounted the production with flair and energy. A highlight is a giddy dance sequence where male dancers are in cater waiter apparel and straw sombreros. A pivotal extended scene at Brooklyn’s Karamazov Club incites a marvelous Russian dance number. Mr. Castellino attempts to inject as much razzle dazzle as possible while confined to a small-scale.
Most integral to the production’s polish is the witty low-tech scenic design of James Morgan. Three square cartoon-style painted columns depict various locales and revolve to swiftly transport us elsewhere with many New York City icons on view. There’s a neat rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge and numerous other cool touches. Most conspicuous is a streetlamp with a jumble of street signs signifying the location with comic authenticity.
Lighting designer Michael Gottlieb achieves a crisp dimension, but One Dream Sound’s sound design gets muddy here and there. Tyler M. Holland’s smart costume design finds a perfect look for each wacky character.
Innocuous, likeable and appealingly presented, I Spy A Spy hasn’t been successfully shaped into the frothy entertainment it aspires to be.
I Spy A Spy (through August 10, 2019)
The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ispyaspythemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission