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Goodman Theatre’s “Happiest Song” Not the Happiest, But Full of Hope – by Marisa Cullnan

May 15, 2013 by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

I saw “The Happiest Song Plays Last” at the perfect time: the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombings, the devastating disaster in West, Texas, and the ricin scare that had the nation horrified at the evils of humanity. After a horrific week that tried Americans’ patience and hope, the bombing suspect was caught and Boston rejoiced with Americans everywhere supporting them. “The Happiest Song Plays Last” is not only touching and sweet, but it makes the audience reevaluate the importance of the people in their lives and believe that people are intrinsically good at heart.

Playwright and Tony Award nominee Quiara Alegría Hudes collaborates beautifully with director Edward Torres to create this hopeful Latino play chronicling a year in the life of two cousins. Elliot (Armando Riesco) was the hilarious macho Iraq veteran whose world was changed as he has to face his past when he is cast as an American soldier in a documentary on the Iraq War. On set, Elliot meets Shar (Fawzia Mirza), the beautiful, Juilliard-trained actress with whom he ends up falling in love, and Ali (Demetrios Troy), the movie’s sweet consultant on everything Middle Eastern. Elliot’s cousin Yaz (Sandra Marquez) is a beacon of hope to her struggling North Philadelphia neighborhood. When Yaz’s door is open (as it usually is), her kitchen is open. She feeds the sweet homeless man she lovingly calls Lefty (James Harms) and hosts parties for her neighbor and friend Joaquin (Jaime Tirelli).

Half of the play’s action is set in Yaz’s Philly apartment while the other half is set in Jordan, following Elliot. While Elliot is making the movie, Yaz plans a relationship with her older neighbor Joaquin and takes care of Lefty. Elliot falls in love with Shar and must try to deal with the cognitive dissonance he experiences while making a movie with Ali, even though Elliot was once actively fighting Iraqis and killed at least one in cruel circumstances.

The actors did a great job portraying their characters. They blurred the lines between their real personalities and their roles; I couldn’t even begin to picture Marquez as anything but a Mother Teresa figure. Harms did an amazing job portraying Lefty’s innate goodness, delivering lines that really resonate with the audience. Mirza played the Juilliard-educated, beautiful Shar with dedication and precision while Riesco seemed right at home with his role as Elliot.

“The Happiest Song Plays Last” revolves around the peaceful sounds of the Cuban Tres guitar played by Nelson González. Music was a vessel through which Hudes chose to tell the story and express the emotion of the play. The silent scenes were the most tense and gripping while the addition of the Cuban Tres guitar was central to the Latino feel Hudes was going for.

This play is the last of the trilogy, but even without seeing the first two I found myself tearing up when seeing the anguish on Elliot’s face when he returns home to Yaz and receives Ali’s package  that causes him to break down and confess to Shar what he had done in Iraq. The resolution of “The Happiest Song Plays Last” may not have been the happiest, but it was full of hope.

The Happiest Song Plays Last – by AnnMarie Welser

May 14, 2013 by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

Each family is unique. Within each lies a trail of helpful lessons and adventures, yet none stand better alone than united. Many see the opportunity to help one another and to pass on the lessons they have learned, creating a universal family. Quiara Alegria Hudes displays this theme in the last installment to her Pulitzer-prize winning storyline, “The Happiest song plays last”. This story is based upon Elliot’s family life and the role family plays in a community. The final edition to this trilogy upholds the dramatic, dazzling and moving status Playwright Hudes has created. Not only did this installment terrifically end a great storyline, but also shined on its own.

 In this chapter of Elliot’s life, he has become an actor playing a role he knows all too well, an American soldier. As Elliot (Armando Riesco) takes part in this Pakistan placed film he falls for his co-star Shar (Fawzia Mirza) and faces his past by meeting Ali (Demetrios Troy), the Iraqi working along with the movie. Elliot’s cousin, Yaz (Sandra Marquez), on the other hand is still in their home of Pennsylvania. Yaz, the “mother” of the homeless, struggles to start her own family and begins to wonder if she should go against her morals to do so. As the story progresses so do the characters. Through death and protests, the theme of the play was highlighted, finding oneself

Director Edward Torres complemented this play. His stage directions made the entire theatre feel involved. The lights and projection design by Jesse Krug and John Boesche brought all to amazement as they were able to project a web cam chat. From bombs exploding to pots and pans clinking, the sounds completed the play. Guitarist Nelson Gonzalez smoothly made this product flow with his guitar. The set design complemented the Goodman’s theater size and the actors were able to use this as an advantage. They made the simple set work through always maintaining the audiences focus. As actors roamed through the theatre technical elements such as lights and sounds captured the audience’s attention, but the acting finished it. Each character, large and small, perfected this play. Armando Riesco was the ideal fit for Elliot, he was able to move the audience from laughs to tears almost effortlessly, as did James Harm who, as Lefty, brought a brighter side to the production bringing all to smile.

With a tremendous storyline, breathtaking set and terrific acting, “The Happiest song plays last” is not a production to miss. It taught me that many lessons, especially the true definition of a family. Family is a universal term. With her play displaying the affects people have on one another, Hudes shows that the word family spreads far from your pedigree.

Happy Song, but Notes Don’t Harmonize – by Julia Szromba

May 14, 2013 by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

As the first measures of Nelson Gonzalez’s Cuban guitar music sway around the theater and his rich, deep voice fills the air with a gentle Spanish melody, you will feel transported to another time and place, a place of rich culture and tradition: Puerto Rico.

Once he exits the stage, however, you may feel a jolt of confusion, a feeling that never quite leaves you for the duration of the production. Playwright Quiara Algeria Hudes and director Edward Torres set out to ambitiously combine the stories of a troubled, war-torn Iraqi veteran with an intelligent, desperate woman in North Philly. Unfortunately, these two notes don’t harmonize.

The first of the two tales involves Elliot (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran attempting to come to terms with his past actions while simultaneously being forced to relive them through his new job as an actor in an action movie. Though these events are based on the actual life of Hudes’ cousin, the story falls short of being realistic. It seems to rely on stereotypes to move the story along rather than delving into the deeper, more interesting psychological issues that plague him. Perhaps the omission is due to the constant jumping back and forth between Elliot and the second story of Yaz (played convincingly by Sandra Marquez).

Yaz fills her life with caring for others. Her house is a makeshift soup kitchen for the needy, but she still feels lonely. I may have disagreed with some of Yaz’s choices (her love interest, for example), but her story was nonetheless believable and sometimes deeply moving, especially during the second act. Once again, however, the strange back-and-forth format of the play in which viewers were constantly switching between characters, dilemmas, and sets meant that some of the more emotional elements of Yaz’s story were lost. It is difficult to come to care deeply about a character if you only get to see him or her for a period of a few minutes before you move on to an entirely different plot.

The Happiest Song Plays Last does makes excellent use of technology, projecting Skype conversations and a texting session between the cousins on a wall, which successfully blends Latin American identity into a contemporary work. But it still does not link the two disparate tales.

The production would be stronger if Hudes had just made her play focused on either Elliot or Yaz. With the two stories, the production seems rushed and less believable. Though this play was meant to be Hudes’ final installment of the “Elliot Trilogy” (begun in 2006), it is still vital for each separate play to be able to stand on its own. Audiences should not require any prior knowledge of characters in order to understand their actions.

I’d like to think that there was some kind of deeper meaning in this play, but my overall sense was one of confusion. The characters were undoubtedly interesting, though they lost some of their realness when the scenes were constantly shifting. The Happiest Song Plays Last makes interesting contemporary connections with a Latino inspired focus, but the rest of the production is still too rough around the edges.

The Happiest Song Plays Last – by Crystiona Maiden

May 14, 2013 by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

Think about what you do before it’s done. The Happiest Song Plays Last is all about thinking before you do something. The play is part of a trilogy, not knowing what happened in the previous productions I adjusted well. Before I went in to see the production I read the playbill and I was totally fine. During the production we see the relationship between our main character Yaz, who is an educated community activist, and her next door neighbor Agustin grow, literally. It isn’t until Agustin dies that Yaz realizes that she is with child.

The theme of this production according to the author (Quiara Alegria Hudes) is protest. I don’t believe that protest was the center of this production. There are some random protest scenes that are to me pretty useless or confusing. In the opening scene it started with a protest, it is quite perplexing.  I understand that they are trying to fight for the rights of the Puerto Ricans, but it is still quite baffling. Hudes creates this play from her own family difficulties, and her cousin Elliot. I believe that the main theme of the production should be family. I think the production is more family based, opposed to protest.

The idea that you should be conscious of what you do can be seen when Yaz gives herself to Agustin (Jaime Tirelli). Agustin was Yaz’s next door neighbor who was also married. Yaz was very hesitant to have a child, but did she have her child with the right man? Also, when Yaz’s cousin Elliot, who is a former soldier, goes into the home of the soldier and kills him, turns out this man wasn’t even the “enemy”. He had no idea who this man’s family was or how many little children he had. Elliot’s’ consequence is that this would be with him forever. Consequences and decisions go hand in hand. Also, when Yaz basically beats the poor man that calls her mom, Lefty, without realizing that the watch that he was wearing, was not the watch of Agustin.

The musician (Nelson Gonzalez) sums up the whole production with his music. He makes the production feel Latino. Taking Spanish class at school also helped me to understand what he was saying. Elliot’s (Armando Riesco) accent is fantastic. He reminds me of an army version of Vinny from Jersey Shore. At first, it was unbelievable to me that Yaz and Elliot were cousins, until I did research on Elliot (Armando Riesco). Elliot (Armando Riesco) is also Puerto Rican just as Yaz (Sandra Marquez). The technology in the production is incomparable and brilliant. It is nothing that I’ve seen in any other production, it is neat. The best part is when we see Elliot and Yaz on facetime with each other, it is quite mind boggling.


The Happiest Song Plays Last – by Lara Jung

May 14, 2013 by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

Everyday I plug in my earbuds as I get ready to walk home from school. I listen to alternative mostly, but recently, I’ve been listening to cuadro.

Going in, I had never heard of the music, and had only seen Quiara Alegria  Hudes’ In the Heights when I was in the 6th grade. Coming out of the theatre, I couldn’t get that cuadro music out of my head. Unfortunately, the music wasn’t quite enough to make me feel less unsettled after watching the play.

Based on Hudes’ cousin, the play is a part of a trilogy, chronicling the lives of soldier Elliot (played by Armando Riesco) and his philanthropic activist cousin Yaz (played by Sandra Marquez. Both characters live on opposite sides of the world.  The audience watches as Elliot struggles to overcome his past and Yaz tries to find her way in an uncertain future.

The problem with the story is that there is too much of it. Elliot is off in Jordan shooting an action movie (which seemed a little ridiculous to begin with).  Yaz is contemplating having a baby with her mentor, a man twice her own age. I could not get past that plot twist. Then, the old guy dies—making her pregnancy that much more exciting of course. The storylines seems scattered and exhausting.

There are, however, moments of true honesty that seemed like a part of an entirely different play. The musician, Nelson González adds layer to the play that it needed. His music is particularly exciting because it gives a break from the constant emotional barrage.  The one plotline that I found particularly chilling is  that between Yaz and Lefty (portrayed by James Harms). Lefty is a mentally unstable man that Yaz essentially mothers. Once the old man dies, a distraught Yaz kicks Lefty out of her house. She grapples with the loss of a friend and father to her child. At the same time, she struggles to fins her place in an unclear future. The raw emotion portrayed by both Harms and Marquez made the little hairs on my arm stand straight up.

So while I often felt like there was too much going on, the actors’ portrayal is arresting. The problem for me came with an almost unbelievable plot matched with a more sincere cast. That disconnect left me confused about how to feel. The music allowed me to focus less on the unrealistic plot and more on the emotion. At the end, I most certainly had tears in my eyes; it was heavy stuff, to be sure, but that’s coming from the person who cries at the end of Marley and Me.