BWW Review: Theatre22's HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST: Punchy, but Discordant
"The Happiest Song Plays Last" puts two dissonant narratives side by side. Former marine Elliot (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) puts his wartime experience to practical use for motion pictures, acting as an on-set wartime expert for a docu-drama shot in Jordan. Moments in the script trigger his PTSD, but he pushes through as they make their way to Egypt with the help of his co-star Shar (Lexi Chipman) and his sprightly right-hand man Ali (Agastya Kohli). Meanwhile, his cousin Yaz (Aida Leguizamon) is in his home in Philadelphia, tirelessly feeding her neighborhood with her love-rich cooking, and helping a simple, transient man name Lefty (empathetically portrayed by Rich Hawkins).
Last we met Yaz and Elliot, they were grieving the loss of Elliot's mother, Ginny, and grappling with identity in "Water by the Spoonful," part two of Quiara Alegría Hudes' trilogy about Elliot. "The Happiest Song Plays Last" is part three. For both part one (a staged reading of "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue") and the very well received part two, Theatre22 had different actors portray the roles of Yaz and Elliot (Tesenia Iglesias and Jany Bacallao) in their 2015 adaptations. Though Julie Beckman directed all three, the interpretations for the central characters in "Happiest" feel drastically different from "Water by the Spoonful", which may not be for everyone.
As Yaz, Leguizamon feels significantly younger, bordering on too young, for what unfolds in this production. Her eagerness to feed and nurture her community is too put-on and self-conscious, a green tone further emphasizing the age difference between herself and her romantic prospect Augustín (Michael D. Blum). As her older, married neighbor, Blum is a tired but happy cuatro player, and even though their age difference gets addressed in the production, said age gap isn't as gaping on paper. I found myself very uncomfortable during moments that were supposed to be tender.
Similarly, the parallel narrative has another uncomfortable romantic coupling: Elliot and Shar. The moment audiences are introduced to the co-star, a romance between the two feels imminent. When it happens, it gets plopped into the storyline suddenly, and pales in comparison to the rich and complicated friendship Elliot has with Ali.
But Chipman holds her own, and gives Shar depth. She is a spoiled actress who actually says something to the degree of, "Wait until my father hears about this!", but she's also an intelligent woman who is tired of explaining her ethnicity to people. Chipman does a good job accentuating the latter.
As Elliot, Joshua Chessin-Yudin is a scrappy boy from Philly, which isn't exactly a warworn or mature portrayal, but it's entertaining as hell and fabulously leaned into. Plus Chessin-Yudin's solid chemistry with Kohli as Ali (who gives a really well-rounded and energetic performance) gives Elliot more appeal. This approach to Elliot's characterization is a polarizing choice, but I rather enjoyed it.
"Happiest" has a penchant for melodrama, and the amount of heightened emotional moments make for an exhausting narrative. Though Emily Sershon's literal set design was detailed and beautiful, "Happiest" comprising a mixed bag of autobiography and magical realism could have used a more figurative physical landscape vis-à-vis "Water by the Spoonful". It needs to be way dreamier with a bigger emphasis on the cuatro music motif (most of which is canned in this show).
Frankly, "The Happiest Song Plays Last" is a tough script to successfully pull off, if for no other reason than "Happiest" following it's Pulitzer Prize-winning part two, and Theatre22's production is commendable and colorful. Each of the two storylines has individual merit, but the show does not work as a cohesive unit, especially when one narrative is more entertaining than the other. Generally solid casting choices and energetic performances give this show juice, but the parallel narratives are too askew and too unrelated. For bright performances in an unpolished story, I give Theatre22's discordant "The Happiest Song Plays Last" a mild B-. It's fun to watch the characters, but it's hard to connect with the characters when the characters struggle to connect with each other.
Theatre22's "The Happiest Song Plays Last" performs at 12th Avenue Arts through April 14th, 2018. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.theatre22.org.