Get to the Lite Stuff

Don't worry, get happy (if also a little numb) with these local productions

Where is the epicenter of live theater in South Florida? There are several contenders, but none can top Coral Gables, with five professional companies in residence. If you toss in the Coconut Grove Playhouse, just down the road, and City Stage, which books the University of Miami theater in the summers, the total is seven theaters and ten stages within a few miles of one another.

This amount of activity makes it tough for producers to grab and hold a steady audience. The Actors' Playhouse on Miracle Mile approaches that challenge by offering breezy, upbeat fare. It has that big ex-movie house, the Miracle, to fill, as well as a 300-seat balcony theater upstairs and, coming soon, a 100-seat black box space to boot. So it's not surprising that Actors' Playhouse would go for something like its current offering, 4 Guys Named José ... and una Mujer Named María, a light and lively Latin-music review that enjoyed a long run off-Broadway recently. The Playhouse has imported the original New York production -- actors, musicians, the whole kit and caboodle -- to settle in for an extended stay in Miami. This strategy pays off. The show is slick, tight, and professional. Serving a mélange of classic Latin tunes and hip-swiveling dance numbers, 4 Guys is like flan: light, sweet, and easy to swallow.

This show has several assets, notably the lovely, timeless Latin tunes and a talented cast with impressive singing skills. All the "Guys" -- Henry Gainza, Allen Hidalgo, Jorge E. Maldonado, and Ricardo Puente -- may be named José, but they are no ordinary Joes. Gainza has a remarkable voice that is sweet and powerful. Hidalgo has a Bob Fosse look and the dance moves to go with it. Puente adds some romantic soul, while Maldonado is a born crooner. The María -- Lissette Gonzalez -- is a long-legged beauty with a lovely voice. Led by Susan Tubert's crisp direction and Maria Torres's energetic choreography, the talent abounds on the Miracle boards.

The four guys are José; the one in the middle is María
The four guys are José; the one in the middle is María


Based on a book by Dolores Prida. Through December 30, 305-444-9293. Choreographed by Maria Torres.
The Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

That said, 4 Guys cannot be given an unqualified rave.

The show is hampered, to put it gently, by a wretched book by Dolores Prida. She sets the story, such as it is, at a VFW hall in Nebraska where this troupe of Latin entertainers has been booked one wintry night. The guys -- a Cuban, a Mexican, a Dominican, and a Puerto Rican -- start the show, but their María doesn't appear. Instead her roommate, also named María, arrives and goes on in her place. All the guys fall for the new María and try to win her. Okay, this isn't Don Giovanni, but it will do, since the point is to get to the singing and dancing as quickly as possible. Unfortunately Prida makes the mistake of turning a good idea into a crusade/lecture about Latin stereotypes and Latin culture -- apparently with the idea that, like the VFW audience in the show, the real audience must be Anglo and ignorant. This dubious premise might have worked -- barely -- in New York, but this is Miami. You can't help but cringe when the cast tries to explain to the largely Latin audience that there are many different cultures within the Latin community. When the characters try to teach the audience some Spanish, you know a major disconnect is occurring. One character warns the audience that one song will be sung completely in Spanish: "Don't worry. Your hair won't turn green."

Oh well, stick with the songs and you'll be all right. The selections range from traditional boleros on through to the not-so-Latin "Livin' La Vida Loca." It might have been nice if the show included music beyond the Caribbean. The rich Colombian and Brazilian traditions are only briefly touched on, and Andean and Argentine music are ignored entirely. But you take what you get, and what you get here is a fizzy, lightweight show that makes you wish for a cool drink and maybe a cigar. In fact this show would be much enhanced in a nightclub setting. The three-piece band sounds pretty darn small in the cavernous main-stage space, and the cast has to work hard to reach the audience. The show is bound to get better when it moves upstairs to the more intimate balcony theater later in the run.

A few blocks away, the Dreamers Theatre has debuted with a world premiere, Beautiful Dreamer: A Tale of Cassadaga, written and directed by the company's artistic director, Yolandi Hughes. This new troupe, which dedicates itself to nurturing local artistic talent, has assembled an impressive group of the same, especially in the design and production departments. Michael Essad (scenery), Ellis Tillman (costumes), Eric Nelson (lighting), and Gregory D. Sendler (music) are all regulars at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and their superior contributions to this fledgling company are decided assets.

I wish I could offer more good news about the production itself. Hughes the playwright has delivered a likeable but conceptually unfocused comedy that feels as dated as the overstuffed Victorian furniture on the set. The story has to do with the community of Cassadaga, Florida, a real-life town allegedly populated by spiritualists. The community's premier clairvoyant, Claire (get it?), is visited by the ghost of the community's founder, George Colby, with whom she has been carrying on a platonic romance. The ghost keeps asking Claire to "walk with him in the garden," but she isn't ready to go there yet.

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