As a Whitman’s Sampler of Latin musical styles, the off Broadway musical Four Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria does so much more than pay lip service to great love songs, ballads and dance numbers from across the decades.
Packaged as a musical comedy – the five singing and dancing characters are “putting on a show” at a VFW hall in Omaha, Nebraska – the play introduces, explains and demonstrates the different styles of indigenous music from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
Not that it’s a staid history lesson, mind you. Onstage through June 16 at Stageworks in Tampa, the high-energy production is fast, freewheeling, fun and full of surprises. Musically, it is beautifully performed.
Four Guys Named Jose is the second installment of Stageworks’ Hispanic Initiative. Each season, explains director JL Rey, at least one production will “explore one aspect of Latino American culture.”
Last year, Rey directed the drama In the Time of the Butterflies, the story of four sisters during a time of political turbulence in the Dominican Republic. In the 2019/2020 season, Stageworks (and Rey) will produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, a fictionalized drama about cigar workers in 1920s Ybor City.
The kicker: Half the performances in each run are in English, the other half in Spanish.
“The attempt,” Rey explains, “is to bring as much Spanish theater as possible, because we discovered that it had been something like 20 years since a professional theater company had produced a play in Spanish in Tampa. There had been musicals produced, but not a play.”
Rey, a native of Cuba who spent 25 years doing theater in Tampa, but now resides in New York City, cooked up the Hispanic Initiative along with Stageworks artistic director Karla Hartley. At least 23 percent of Tampa’s population is in some part of Hispanic heritage, according to statisticatlas.com.
Rey saw the bilingual Four Guys during its original New York run in 2001, and brought it to a producer he knew in Tampa. And it was turned down.
“As often happens when we do things to expose the wider culture to our culture, often we end up making fun of ourselves,” Rey observes. “And sometimes we make fun of the culture itself. I think the original production may have done a little too much of that, and that’s why some people didn’t like it.”
There’s a bit of Carmen Miranda/Ricky Ricardo silliness in Four Guys, and every once in a while a stereotype will peek through, but for the most part the focus is on infectious boleros, cumbia, merengue and cha-cha-cha, performed by terrific singers, sometimes in five-part harmony, and a rhythmic on-stage band.
“Karla brought it to me last year, when we were working on Butterflies,” Rey recalls, “and asked if I’d seen it. I said yes, I had.
“I read the script and felt that I needed to approach it in a different manor. The audience that this show worked better for in New York, to be blunt, was largely Anglo-Saxon, white, older people who were coming to expose themselves to some culture.
“Which was great. The thing is, that audience that’s coming to see this show in Tampa is more sophisticated than that. Many of them are bilingual, if not tri-lingual. These people don’t need to be spoon-fed silly humor in order to accept the culture.”
There’s a storyline in Four Guys, although it’s little more than a thread to connect the musical numbers – from “Mi tierra” to “Rhythm Divine.”
“I took out a lot of the shtick – I left in a lot of the comedy, because it’s funny and fun – but I played it more straight-ahead. Because I don’t want to make fun of this music. I want this music to speak for itself. I don’t want to make fun of the culture. I want you to come and enjoy it, be part of our culture.”
Tickets and info here.