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

May 15, 2013 in Blog 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.