Friday, July 19, 2019

42 (2019-2020): Review: I SPY A SPY: A DECLASSIFIED MUSICAL COMEDY (seen July 17, 2019)

“A New York City Melting Plot”

Sometimes a show comes along that perfectly coincides with a major socio-political problem being played out in the daily news cycle. Imagine a play being produced right now that dealt with a presidential impeachment, or one that addressed the exploitation of underage girls by men in powerful positions. Such a play, regardless of its artistic quality, would have a built-in electric charge for potential ticket buyers eager to see how the issue was being handled through a theatrical lens.
Andrew Mayer and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
To a degree, that’s the case with I Spy a Spy: A Declassified Musical Comedy, a new Off-Broadway musical at Theatre at St. Clement’s. Its theme is the plight of immigrants, legal and illegal, hoping to capitalize on the American dream. Sadly, that issue is used not for a serious, or even serio-comic, examination of the immigrant dilemma. Instead, it provides the spark for a banal exercise that, for all its upbeat treatment of America’s cultural diversity, is little more than an excuse for a mostly witless, farcical farrago about stereotypical, cartoon characters of multiple ethnicities. 
James Donegan, Lawrence E. Street, Emma Degerstedt, Hazel Ann Raymundo, Connor McShane. Photo: Russ Rowland.

It’s a shame because a lot of effort has gone into what, on the surface, is an ambitious enterprise, with a cast of 12 (big for Off Broadway), including the sizzling Emma Degerstedt, so hot in Smokey Joe’s Café and Desperate Measures. But the material is little more than a melting plot of comic book action with an uncomic book, uninspired lyrics, and a generic score of 13 songs.

Andrew Mayer and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
There’s a lot of activity going on under Bill Castellino’s (Cagney) frenetic direction and choreography, and the cast—a versatile ensemble that gets to make numerous costume changes (Tyler M. Holland is the designer) to play multiple roles—uses its talents gamely. Too bad that none of it adds up to very much. Whatever it may wish to say about the immigrant experience is lost in the show’s mashup of mediocre mayhem.
Bruce Warren, Emma Degerstedt. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Jamie Jackson (who wrote the lyrics and cowrote the book) and SoHee Youn (who cowrote the book and composed the music) are the creators of this juvenile, plotline-cluttered show, which requires nearly two and a half hours to perform. When the intermission arrived around 8:15 following a 7:00 p.m. curtain, it took me by surprise. Just as I was checking my watch to see when it would end, the show was getting ready for another hour or more of unamusing complications.
Connor McShane, James Donegan, John Wascavage, Andrew Mayer. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Those include several subplots. One involves José Rodriguez (Andrew Mayer), an undocumented Mexican and would-be actor, who wears a Statue of Liberty costume in Times Square and works at two stores in Hell’s kitchen. He’s in hot water with a villainous Latina female smuggler, Prisciliana Expinoza (Nicole Paloma Sarro), who threatens his life if he doesn’t pay the $55 K  he owes her for smuggling him across the border.
Emma Degerstedt, Andrew Mayer. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Then there’s his attraction to Alina Orlova (Degerstedt), beautiful daughter of the Russian spymaster Cold Borscht (Bruce Warren), who’s trained her in espionage (she’s constantly citing the rules of spying). Cold Borscht wants her to steal the New York’s mayor’s briefcase as part of a vaguely defined scheme to bring him down.  (Cold Borscht, by the way, is a code name. Alina’s is Cheese Blini and a Russian hacker spy’s is Beef Stroganoff. And that's about the sophomoric level of humor throughout.)
Bruce Warren, John Wascavage. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Cold Borscht, a traditional spy, is rivaled by the newfangled methods of the aforementioned hacker, played with hip-hop attitude by John Wascavage, who wants his job. He threatens to send the older man and his offspring to Siberia if their mission fails. A further subplot concerns a "Spy of the Year" competition.

There's also another competition, one that involves Alina, in the process of pursuing her mission, trying to get José chosen as the Face of New York. Against her will, however, she gets picked herself and becomes a celebrity, even appearing on SNL and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Company of I Spy a Spy Photo: Russ Rowland.
Meanwhile, back in Hell’s Kitchen, Abdul Makhdoon (Sorab Wadja), who runs a Pakistani pizza joint, for which José delivers pies, is in a business rivalry with Ms. Sunny Park (Hazel Ann Raymundo). She's the nearby Korean grocery owner, for whom José also works. But the Pakistani and the Korean, for all their friction (including mutual spying), are attracted to one another (although unwilling to admit it). Eventually, both become targets of Homeland Security agents as suspected terrorists because—oh, the wit of it—they’re guilty of such things as Abdul’s notes on culinary fusion (he makes gefilte fish kebabs) being mistaken for nuclear fusion.
Taylor Fields, Andrew Mayer, Connor McShane. Photo: Russ Rowland.
It all comes together in a big scene set among Russian revelers at the Karamazov Club in Brighton Beach, where an extended Russian folk-dance sequence, “Only a Russian,” concludes the nonsensical proceedings in a choreographically-familiar but, I admit, entertainingly enthusiastic finale.
Lawrence E. Street, Andrew Mayer, James Donegan. Photo: Russ Rowland.
James Morgan, artistic director of the York Theatre Company, where director-choreographer Castellino is also active, has designed a lighthearted, cartoony set that helps moves things from place to place by revolving a row of periaktoi-like towers, each of their sides depicting another place. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting bathes the stage in musical comedy colors. Youn’s mostly upbeat music, well-enough—if unmemorably—sung by the ensemble, is played under Dan Pardo’s musical direction by four musicians placed, largely out of sight, to the right of the auditorium bleachers.
Grace Choi, Taylor Fields, Nicole Paloma Sarro. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Barely any of the songs stand out, and the title of the so-so opening number, “The American Dream,” too readily brings to mind the brilliant, show-stopping song of the same name in Miss Saigon. Of the leading performers, only the striking Degerstedt (an eye-opener when she dons a skimpy, sequined, green sheath) and the bearded, stocky Warren make a lasting impression, but their material prevents them from offering anything you haven’t seen before. Some actors, like Sarro, Warren and Wadja, deploy heavy ethnic accents. Raymundo's lines only occasionally betray her Korean immigrant’s origins, and Mayer, despite playing a Mexican immigrant, speaks perfect American English. 
Grace Choi, Sorab Wadja, Hazel Ann Raymundo, Lawrence E. Street. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Overall, I Spy a Spy is similar to what you’d expect from a children’s musical: energetic, corny, exaggerated, and, for the most part (rare these days), clean. Apart from its message of ethnic inclusivity, however, if one could even call it a message, I spied very little about which to report to Moscow.
Company of I Spy a Spy. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th St., NYC
Through September 21