Latin Play, Boys

Barrio Babies takes on Hollywood's treatment of Hispanics.

Plays that illuminate the predicaments of entire cultural groups are inevitably propelled by richly detailed characters whose everyday struggles epitomize larger concerns. August Wilson's soul-stirring dramas about twentieth-century black life, for example, strike universal chords because their theme of racial oppression never displaces the playwright's broader message about the common sanctity of dreams. Even an opera like Kurt Weill's Street Scene, about life during the Depression, resonates best when the story's shifting tides of passion are given full expression by beautifully conceived characters.

But even though the creators of Barrio Babies obviously intend to shed some light on Hollywood's homogenization of Latino culture, the Denver Center Theatre Company's world-premiere musical suffers from the same sort of superficial treatment it seeks to parody. Instead of augmenting their semi-sung love story with witty commentary and fully realized characters, Fernando Rivas's canned, though catchy, tunes frequently collide with Luis Santeiro's less-than-inspired lyrics (one sentimental ballad sounds like a commercial for a Caribbean cruise). Or they abruptly end just as the audience is becoming attuned to this or that character's dilemma. Worse, earnestly intoned snippets like "Good-bye New York, hello L.A./ Good-bye Euripides, I'm not going to do your play today" and "We would always be together, there were no doubts/Because we knew each other's ins and outs" sound just as shlocky as the formulaic stereotypes the authors evidently wish to shatter. Apart from a couple of sharp satirical group numbers and the wistful final scene, this semi-serious spoof winds up sounding more like a broken record than a groundbreaking musical.

Even so, director Susana Tubert manages to invigorate the repetitive goings-on by implementing a slew of technical effects (including a fifteen-foot-high Madonna that doubles as a taco sign), a fire-breathing pyramid, a trio of life-sized dancing plantains, dozens of costume changes and a nine-panel rear-projection screen that reflects shifts in mood and/or locale. Combined with the pulsating (and sometimes ear-splitting) accompaniment of a five-piece band, Tubert's slick approach makes for a mildly entertaining evening of calculated whimsy. And the six talented performers, all of whom hail from out of town (the show is headed for New York after its Denver run), lend the material some much-needed panache.

Los angeles: Barrio Babies musical director Douglas Coates with actors April Ortiz, Philip Anthony, Sara Ramirez, Edgar Garcia, Steve Routman and Annie Kozuch.
Los angeles: Barrio Babies musical director Douglas Coates with actors April Ortiz, Philip Anthony, Sara Ramirez, Edgar Garcia, Steve Routman and Annie Kozuch.

Sara Ramirez leads the company with her winning portrait of Josie Lopez, an idealistic actress who studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but decided to move to L.A. to avoid the humiliation of earning a New York living making Spanish-language TV ads. Possessed with a silvery singing voice, the statuesque Ramirez effortlessly conveys her character's straight-shooting passion while endowing her two brief solos, "Made for Each Other" and "Close Your Eyes to See," with delicate, jazzy embellishments. And even though the musical's events have given Josie reason to behave like a scorned woman, Ramirez never lets her wounded pride get in the way of her artistic aspirations -- especially during her episodes with the "other woman," who's played to delightful bed-hopping, heart-of-gold-digging perfection by Annie Kozuch. Kozuch scores big-time during her cleverly staged duet, "Make Love to Me in Spanish," and elicits good-natured laughter when she makes the transformation from downtrodden actress to savvy entrepreneur, a career move/sellout that reaches its apotheosis during the show's most effectively satirical number, "The Big Banana."

Edgar Garcia amuses with his unaffected portrayal of Oscar Garces, a baggy-panted juvenile type relegated to playing emergency-room victims, drug dealers and gangbangers. When he finally gets his big break as a cinematic serial killer, he's shocked to discover that his performance has been edited due to protests from Latinos who don't want to see themselves portrayed in negative ways. He lampoons the lines that Latinos have traditionally been forced to utter (such as "Coffee, señor?" and "We'd better run, muchacho") during his solo "The Line Up," a song that rolls along with the kind of breakneck, near-farcical energy that's needed elsewhere in the play. As the pragmatic character actress Lola Roldan, April Ortiz uses a mixture of class, style and verve to guide her through "Love Among the Lepers," a solo that recounts her experiences while working on a biblical flick set in the desert. Although the leading character of Ray Reyes isn't given a meaty enough scene early on to reveal the depth of his passion, Philip Anthony is appealing as the disillusioned writer/performer who makes the trek to L.A. to peddle the screenplay version of the musical's title. And the versatile Steve Routman nearly steals the show with his crackerjack turn as several agents and producers: His campy appearances as Linda, a pants-suited studio executive, and Moe, a mogul who makes his office in a playpen, are comic treasures.

All in all, though, the audience spends two and a quarter hours waiting for something -- anything -- that will prompt us to care about the characters and their run-of-the-mill show-business travails. But that never happens -- until the last ten minutes, that is, when Ray "discovers" that he doesn't need Hollywood to validate his creativity and decides to compose another play/film/musical that will honestly reflect his cultural upbringing and values. "Your world is all I have ever aspired to," he aptly observes of the white-dominated entertainment industry. It's an intriguing realization that makes one wonder whether the sequel to Barrio Babies isn't the musical that Santeiro and Rivas should have written in the first place.

 
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