“I know I don’t look 70…It’s my cheekbones, the bras of old age…I am here in this country because of a strong willed woman and a hurricane…” Carlos (Caesar Samayoa) tells the story of being shepherded across the Mexican border in 1933 at four. We feel his pushing against the wind and objection to being lashed to the tree that saved his life.
Lillian (Luba Mason) grew up poor and rambunctious in government housing. We watch the actress morph into a tomboy.” There’s nothing much to do in 1952 for three girls in the middle of July.” She and her sisters observe a Mexican family jump off a freight and hide in a cave. The girls leave them food at night, then watch the strangers flee huddled in the back of a produce truck.
“Los Otros” means the others. This is a story of “them” and “us,” a division too often applied these days. It’s a low key, deeply human look at perspective and crossovers through the lives of Carlos and Lillian who actually don’t meet till much further on. Director Noah Himmelstein sometimes has one or the other sit off to the side, reacting and at others removes him/her from the stage.
Both characters live in southern California. Carlos is not allowed to speak Spanish in school. He becomes a migrant field worker watched by the foreman with binoculars – “from a distance, we all look the same.” The boy finds a gay partner at 12. By 1942, he and his mother are American Citizens. Lillian is twice divorced. Her second husband was gay. She ends up in Burbank raising two kids on $97 weekly. “I don’t know how a milk fed girl becomes a boozin’ woman.” Drunk, she picks up an 18 year-old Mexican virgin. (Gorgeous storytelling.)
Almost all dialogue is sung. Librettist/Lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh draws loosely on the life of Louis Cantabrana, 77, who grew up in Carlsbad and recently returned to live there in his retirement. Stories about his family’s colorful history inspired this one. Fitzhugh’s one-act play, “Tres Ninas,” followed a California woman and her interactions with Mexican-Americans. Together…There’s pathos and humor, bigotry, sex, revelation. Details are engaging, realistic choices made. Lyrics sound like natural speech.
Composer Michael John LaChiusa, whose composition often wanders beyond grasp, is here appealingly melodic (not AABA) and accessible. Lyrics seem symbiotic. The two artists collaborate remarkably well. With luck, they’ll do so again.
Both Luba Mason (it’s good to see her onstage again) and Caesar Samayoa (most recently in Come From Away) have beautiful voices – vivid, powerful, controlled, eloquently dramatic. Both slip from spoken word into song with graceful fluency. Physical acting feels truthful. Mason and Samayoa create sympathetic whole people.
Director Noah Himmelstein creates entire scenarios with only a few chairs and a single person on stage. Movement is varied and immensely expressive without seeming exaggerated. His actors turn on a dime conjuring experience. Carlos’ accent is pristine. Pacing is pitch perfect. Focus holds with an open hand.
Scenic design by Junghyun Georgire Lee is minimal. A scrim of subtly changing clouds works well. We don’t even need the last scene reveal to make the moment immediate and telling.
Alejo Vietti’s costumes fit time, place, and character.
A warm, moving, and arresting piece.
Photos by Russ Rowland
Los Otros – A New Musical
Book/Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
Music – Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Noah Himmelstein
Music Direction – J. Oconer Navarro
Orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd St.
Through October 8, 2022