Some musical revues sketch stories with song alone; some stitch songs together with thin little skits, reaching for a resonance that all too often proves elusive. Still others blend the best of song and story to create vivid worlds that we don’t want to leave when the house lights come up. MetroStage serves up a slender-but-sweet example of the first kind with Starting Here, Starting Now, which inaugurates its new Alexandria playhouse; Gala Hispanic Theatre shows every sign of wanting to accomplish the last with its more ambitious Raíces Cubanas 2. Both shows wear their hearts pretty nakedly on their sleeves, though it’s only Gala’s that suffers for it.
Of course, MetroStage risks a bit less. Composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. never stray too far from the subject of love, a topic on which they’re graceful and witty enough to recall Sondheim in his rare sunny moods, and the company has assembled a winsome threesome to put the tunes across.
Gala reaches a bit further, combining the sensual melodies and relentless rhythms of Cuba’s distinctive music with snippets from the work of Héctor Quintero, who’s something of a national playwright for the island republic. The cast is bigger, the band is a hell of a lot more boisterous, and the notions in play range from stubborn nationalism and musical chauvinism to heartfelt passion and, yes, hopeless devotion. Indeed, where Starting Here barely bothers with a conceit, Raíces Cubanas 2 (“Cuban Roots 2”) insists on an out-and-out conceptthe idea is to capture some of the ups and downs of Cuban life in the decades since Castro’s revolution, which proves a trickier proposition than it might sound. When the show is hot it fairly sizzles, but when it’s not it can seem embarrassingly naive, if not unbearably sentimental.
To be fair, neither of these musical compilations is entirely free of the kitsch and camp that too often attend the genre. Starting Here director Thomas W. Jones II requires his ladies (Perry Payne is the brassier, Cindy Hutchins the classier by a whisker) to twirl a pair of parasols in their second-act opening number, which would be mortifying even if said accessories weren’t so perilously small and so despicably frilly; inspired by one particularly tender ballad, meanwhile, Gala’s Hugo Medrano sends sultry leading lady Vicky Leyva swanning down a staircase like a supper-club chanteuse in a second-rate movie musical. There are a handful of such lapses to cite in each, but on balance it’s Raíces Cubanas 2 that travels too consistently down the road of stylistic excessand too far, as well, at least for those of us for whom interpretive dance is a milestone to measure by.
Maybe it’s merely that the exuberant emotionalism of the show’s blistering son and salsa breaks makes for too stark a contrast with the wry and relatively sophisticated humor that permeates Quintero’s assessments of what the revolution hath wrought. Medrano’s cast makes genuine comic hay with a fast and funny scene that finds a bossy old woman, a bickering couple, and a nattering bumpkin all sharing one taxicab for the sake of the communal ideal; other snappily played snapshots concisely and pungently capture both the determination and the disillusion of a people who’ve weathered not just the deprivations of embargo but lingering divisions along lines of race and class.
Or maybe it’s that it’s impossible to shake the influence of Saturday Night Live and its irreverent ilk, which have found plenty of fodder for mockery in precisely the kind of high-spirited musical material Medrano draws most heavily on. Either way, or for some other reason entirely, the song-and-dance sequences that dot Raíces Cubanas 2 sometimes feel less like honest homage, à la Buena Vista Social Club, than like unintentional parodies of club scenes from I Love Lucy. And that can’t be what Medrano intended.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that I’m merely an effete and thin-blooded Anglophilewhich would explain why I’m more drawn to the archness and irony that pepper the best of Maltby & Shire’s tunes than to the full-throated roar of a Lazaro Valdez timba. Certainly, anyone who delights in the blithe wordplay of “Crossword Puzzle” (a tongue-twisting comic lament that rhymes “gnu,” of all things, with a tossed-off “boop-boop-be-doo”) can’t be relied upon to react unreservedly to more robust entertainments.
Still, there’s an undeniable charm to a song that considers, however insincerely, the plight of a woman who’s got the book smarts to catch a boyfriend’s mistakes in the Sunday Times puzzle but not the street smarts to suppress the corrective impulse. It’s easy to be drawn, too, to something like “Flair,” which laments the humdrum conformity of the American everyday, even if singer Michael Sharp seems a bit uncertain about the Fosse-esque bits of flairshoulder rolls, finger popsthat Jones asks him to perform along with the song. “Watching the Big Parade Go By,” which Hutchins delivers with just the right blend of wide-eyed excitement and wistfulness, celebrates the thrill of public spectacle and the uncomplicated joys of spectatorship, even as it mourns the eternally transient nature of both.
A melancholy contemplation of “Autumn” (Hutchins again, singing prettily but without the heft that might really sell the song’s climax) is followed hard by a rather more bitter reflection that finds Sharp ticking off the seasons of togetherness, insisting unconvincingly, “I don’t remember needing, I don’t remember wanting, I do not remember April, I do not remember Tuesday, I don’t remember Christmas, and I don’t remember you.”
With its insouciant, syncopated hook and its world-weary lyric (“I’m a bother to my mother/and my father thinks I’m mad/I’ve a brother and two sisters/if I’d smother they’d be glad”), Hutchins’ “Song of Me” comes as close to Sondheimesque brilliance as anything in the show; less effective is “I Don’t Believe It,” a catty comic catalog of couples who protest too much about the splendid state of their relationships; they’re the most laughable of dinner-party denizenswhich makes laughing at them for three or four verses more or less redundant.
That low point aside, the show’s ensemble numbers are uniformly solid; harmonies are tight and confident, and the three singers blend superbly. The strongest solo bit is Payne’s torchy “What About Today,” which is the only number in which anyone really opens up and belts, and if there’s a weak link among Jay Crowder’s lively three-piece band, I missed him. Starting Here, Starting Now is altogether a charming if not especially challenging productionthe perfect reintroductory calling card, really, for a company that’s starting again. CP