Both composer Michael John LaChiusa and lyricist/bookwriter Ellen Fitzhugh have specialized in small scale musicals, aside from their not so successful forays into Broadway (Marie Christine, The Wild Party, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Grind.) LaChiusa is most famous for his oft-revived Hello Again and First Lady Suite, while Fitzhugh’s Off Broadway credits include the acclaimed one-character Herringbone and the two-character Broadbend, Arkansas. Together they have now written an exquisite two-character chamber musical, Los Otros, which has been a long time in developing, beginning in 2008 as “Tres Niños,” and now has the dramatic heft of an opera.
Los Otros (“The Others”) tells the two seemingly unconnected stories through its characters, the Caucasian Lillian (played by Luba Mason) and the Mexican-American Carlos (Caesar Samayoa). While Carlos’ story is punctuated by major events in history, Lillian’s story is more personal. Until the final scene which brings them together, Carlos and Lillian alternate their separate stories until little by little we realize what they have shared. Carlos begins by telling us how the devastating 1933 hurricane in Mexico causes him and his mother to leave for California. In 1941 Carlos lives in Carlsbad, California, and makes a friend of Paco where every summer both families travel to Santa Rosa to pick plums. There he discovers his sexuality with Paco with which they are both comfortable.
During the summer of 1945, he is now an official American citizen. While working in the plum fields as a crop harvester, he finds out that the bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima and soon after the war is over. The racism that he experienced earlier seems to be less apparent at the end of the war. By 1995, Carlos has become an IBM accountant and has been with his partner for 15 years. His partner is a collector of art who has filled their house with too many objects. About to celebrate their anniversary, Carlos prays that he will not be given yet another gift that has to be stored or he threatens to leave.
Lillian’s story begins in 1952 when she is eleven. Living in temporary government housing south of San Diego with her parents, she becomes aware of Mexican immigrants jumping off trains in order to get work as migrant crop harvesters. In 1967 living in Burbank, she has already been married and divorced twice, her first husband the father of her two little girls, and her second husband turned out to be gay. Needing help at home as a single parent with two children, she travels to Tijuana and obtains a Mexican housekeeper Madalena who makes everything easier for the seven months she is with them until she gets married to a former boyfriend she reencounters and leaves by which point Lillian has a better job and better babysitters.
By 1977, the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lillian hates her bartending job and is drinking too much. This leads to risky promiscuous behavior with a young Mexican laborer half her age. The final scene takes in 2000 as the new century brings Lillian and Carlos together over their shared experience, having known each other a good many years. They both finally find peace in their new frienship. While there are no others who appear on stage, we do feel we have met the other people in their lives who they vividly dramatize in their songs and stories.
Not only does Los Otros offer a wide acting range, the musical also challenges the singers as they are alone on stage during most of the show until the final fourth sequence after telling their individual stories. Mason and Samayoa demonstrate tremendous range both musically and dramatically. Both are quite intense, while Carlos’ story as told by Samayoa is more adventurous, and Lillian’s story as told by Mason is more highly emotional. Samayoa remains more likeable throughout as he climbs from illegal immigrant to productive citizen and old age; Mason’s story includes a great many poor choices but she is able to be appealing even when we disapprove of her lifestyle. The two performers are quite impressive relating entire lives in the span of 80 minutes and holding our attention while they are each the only one on stage.
Fitzhugh’s libretto is semi-autobiographical as it is based on people and experiences she recalls from her earlier life in Southern California. LaChiusa’s music, as always, makes you think it is sung-through although there is a good deal of dialogue between the numbers. While his rhythms are continually changing, Fitzhugh’s lyrics do not regularly rhyme so that they meld very successfully. The story of two seeming strangers who reveal their lives and experiences from childhood to adulthood over much of the 20th century and then come together revealing the connection between begins as a series of adventures and then becomes extremely poignant.
Associated with Los Otros since its premiere at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in 2012, director Noah Himmelstein has obtained very detailed performances from his two performers. Musical director J. Oconer Navarro who is also at the piano and plays the entire score along with Cole Davis on bass and Meghan Doyle on guitar is totally in tune with LaChiusa’s delicate and changing melodies. Junghyun Georgie Lee’s minimal stage set includes several chairs and a skyscape projection which morphs for the various scenes. This allows for swift transitions between the eight sequences. This is enhanced by Adam Honoré’s subtle lighting. The basic costumes by Alejo Vietti, two sets for each actor, are perfectly suitable for the different decades of the characters’ lives. In a show which is so dependent on words to tell its story, Ken Travis’ sound design is to be commended.
A fresh antidote to the usual brassy, loud rock musicals of today, Los Otros slows down the tempo and the sound level with a story of the experiences of two people who learn to love, cope and risk over the course of many decades. Luba Mason and Caesar Samayoa are quite endearing as the two California residents whose lives overlap. They give remarkable performances mainly appearing alone on stage telling and singing their stories. Cudos to librettist Ellen Fitzhugh and composer Michael John LaChiusa for bucking the trend and giving us a deeply felt but small-scale musical revealing two people through variously well-chosen experiences which add up to lives well lived. Long after you see it, it you will recall incidents that Lillian and Carlos recount. This may be the result of the fact that Los Otros is based on real people and true life experiences.
Los Otros (through October 8, 2022)
Premieres NYC & Mary J. Davis
A.R.T./New York Theatres – Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.PremieresNYC.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission