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Don’t think of code name: Cynthia as a D.C. musical. Although it’s set here in the city (during the lead-up to the Second World War), the production is firmly rooted in the fantastical mythology of Embassy Row and the Georgetown cocktail circuit. It’s the original #ThisTown, to borrow a page from Mark Leibovich: salacious and silly.
Karen Multer (composer) and Steve Multer (lyricist) discovered the story of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, a dangerous dame—Betty to her intimates, Cynthia to her marks—at the International Spy Museum. In the all-new musical, she navigates a high-stakes scheme that puts her heart on the line. The fate of soldiers, suitors, and maybe even the free world hangs in the balance.
The real find in code name: Cynthia isn’t the fresh history lesson about Thorpe, a bonafide American spy and seductress, and her contributions to the war effort in Paris just after the city fell to Nazis. It’s Gracie Jones, the actress who plays Betty/Cynthia. She packs a thousand-megawatt smile into her performance, with a voice and range to match. Jones plays it light, with a comedic touch, and she’s able to find nuance in a character who is a bit of a superhero. She (and several supporting cast members) carry the musical even when it stumbles.
By the time we meet her, our heroine has already retired from the intelligence game, having played for Franco’s side (as well as against him) during the Spanish Civil War. That’s all behind her; she’s settled in for a life of domestic bliss as a wife and Washington hostess. Betty’s intended is Arthur Pack (Josh Simon), a head-down careerist and British diplomat. There’s a metaphor built into the moment (Washington, before Pearl Harbor, before the Americans decide to go to war). Will we? Won’t we? Will she? Won’t she?
Of course she/we will. William Stephenson, a handler from Cynthia’s past (played to great effect by Jason Hentrich and his winking eyes), drags her kicking and screaming back into the service. She uses her skills to seduce Charles Brousse, a put-upon press attaché working at the French Embassy in service of the collaborationist Vichy regime. The duets establishing Cynthia’s relationship with Stephenson, for the most part a Buffy–Giles dynamic, are some of the richest in the show. (Less so with Brousse.)
Her double life crumbles when Cynthia realizes that Betty’s heart is torn in different directions. She forgets whether she’s truly Cynthia or Betty, and in this (very condensed) version of her life, she’s forced to crack the hardest code: Does she serve or does she settle? Despite Jones’ winning performance, the decision that Cynthia/Betty makes—the choice that’s borne out by history—isn’t totally convincing in the way it’s presented here.
Though the production plainly wishes for a bigger stage, the Pallas Theatre Collective manages to pack a lot of wallop into this black box. That’s thanks in part to the efforts of the Ensemble, who land the big show opener “Somewhere in Washington” as well as one of the livelier numbers, “Another.” A no-fuss accompaniment of piano (Amy Conley) and percussion (Rob Gersten and Kevin Uleck) keeps things moving at a crisp pace. Given that a WWII spy story practically begs for a 15-piece swing orchestra, the spare arrangement works surprisingly well.
Still, code name: Cynthia needs some fine-tuning if it’s ever going to earn the big-as-Broadway reputation it wants. The big numbers don’t quite muster enough big laughs, and the musical lacks a certain edge, lyrically, that should be simple enough to find in songs about international foreplay. There’s not enough verve to the character of Betty’s mother, Cora Wells (Karen Lange), a sultry D.C. doyenne whose social standing depends on her daughter marrying Pack, the cuckolded British diplomat.
Intrigue, on the other hand, this musical delivers. Stephenson (the spymaster) springs a thief out of Sing Sing to help Cynthia and her Vichy chevalier steal some secret codes from a safe in the French Embassy. Russell Silber—with a chiseled jaw and a cartoonish drawl—winningly plays the jail-bird wild-card, who goes by the name of the Georgia Cracker. He’s crucial to establishing the dramatic set-piece at the Hay-Adams Hotel that ends the first act. For that bit, “The (More or Less) Perfect Plan,” Cynthia and her cohort rehearse their heist. It’s simple, tense, and (more or less) perfect.
From Paris to Casablanca, code name: Cynthia follows an ambitious arc. To director Tracey Elaine Chessum’s credit, it’s effortlessly entertaining, a real accomplishment for a new musical. The music is never a let-down, but the songs aren’t quite snappy enough to live up to the source material. These are sexy spies and Georgetown gossips, after all. Where it sags lyrically, code name: Cynthia more than makes up for in performances. Loose lips sink ships, but Jones playing Cynthia is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Or is it Betty?
The play runs July 29 to Aug. 16 at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE. $25. (202) 631-6291.
Handout photos by Teresa Castracane Photography