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.
4 Guys Named Jos ... and una Mujer Named Mara
The Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
Based on a book by Dolores Prida. Through December 30, 305-444-9293. Choreographed by Maria Torres.
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.
Enter a young New Yorker, Tiona, a troubled newlywed whose marriage is foundering on her suspicions that her husband, also named George, is stepping out on her. Tiona asks Claire for a psychic reading to get some insight into her life. Soon Claire tunes in to the spirit of an Indian maiden who apparently committed suicide by drowning years before. The maiden is revealed to have had unrequited passion for George, the ghost who in his living years was her adopted father. Turns out Tiona is her direct descendent, which is why she was drawn to the place and why she may have some psychic powers and ... never mind. The complicated back story of this play is largely irrelevant to what's happening onstage, which centers mostly on the slow-paced courtship between George the ghost and Claire and Tiona's troubles with George, who shows up wanting to reconcile with her.
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All this feels a bit like more than one Noel Coward comedy; indeed the dialogue does deliver several droll one-liners. But the play suffers from a fatuous new-age sentimentality that lacks much bite, except in a scene wherein Claire gets a blind Jehovah's Witness to notarize her will. The witness (Steve Gladstone) speaks only in Biblical quotations, to which Claire offers a series of jokey, sarcastic responses. This jab at traditional Judeo-Christian religion falls flat, of course, since the quotes are beautiful and far better written than anything else in this play. Nevertheless I give Hughes credit for sticking her neck out with this gambit. It's the most provocative aspect of this play, a welcome dash of vinegar amid a lot of saccharine.
Oddly Hughes the director seems to abandon Hughes the writer. The staging is focused on pace and mood, while textual clarity and basic character relationships have been ignored. The alleged attraction between Claire and George the ghost never seems more than friendship, while Tiona and George the husband appear to have no shared connection whatsoever. Several talented veterans are thoroughly wasted here.
Kimberly Daniel brings considerable ease and presence to Claire, but she's all-wise, all-beneficent from start to finish and soon grows tedious. Same for Peter Haig as the ghost of George. Haig is an actor with significant resources, but here he does not haunt the play as much as he sleepwalks through it. Less successful still is Katerina Bilbao in the pivotal role of Tiona. Bilbao, who mugs relentlessly, appears convinced that technique, not emotional honesty, is the basis for comedy. She offers neither, strives for laughs on nearly every line, and gets very few. Fortunately Darryl Solomon as George the husband brings some plausibility and comedic timing to his role.
This is not the first production that has stumbled over its own good intentions, and one misstep should not be taken as an indicator of this company's future. Dreamers certainly has the means to deliver first-rate, provocative theater, and few new companies have the creative resources that this one does. It is thus all the more distressing to see such talent bring forth so little.