By Andrew Poretz …
Have you ever wished you could brag that you caught an early version of a show like Hamilton or In the Heights before it hit Broadway? If you were at 54 Below on November 9, your bragging rights may well be in your future after this staged reading (or staged singing) of Present Perfect, written by the formidable team of composer Jamie Lozano and playwright/lyricist Nancy Nachama Cheser. This reviewer was hugely impressed by Mr. Lozano’s growing oeuvre at his show there in July (reviewed HERE), which included several songs from Present Perfect. (As it happens, Mr. Lozano orchestrated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music for the film In the Heights.) .
The story follows the lives of recently arrived immigrants in New York as each, in their own way, struggles to belong, find love, and succeed in a new country. This ensemble show has a structure reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, with well-constructed songs that support the narrative. Mr. Lozano, dressed in a colorful print shirt, his long hair in a ponytail, introduced the show and the cast. He is a humble, talented man.
This version of Present Perfect has four male and four female cast members, most notably Jaime’s close pal and frequent collaborator Mauricio Martínez, here playing the lead male character, “Javi,” and Mr. Lozano’s wife, Florencia Cuenca. For each song, Mr. Lozano or one of the song’s performers would describe the scene before singing it.
In addition to Mr. Lozano’s excellent piano accompaniment, the production was backed by Agustin Uriburu on guitar, Rubén Rodriguez on bass, and Joel Mateo on drums. It was difficult not to notice bassist Rodriguez, who, thanks to sunglasses, a mustache and a backwards beret, resembled Ché Guevara.
Mr. Martínez led the ensemble for the opening number, “Dreamers Like Me,” a song that sets the tone for the story. Mauricio was dressed in all black, with a black tinsel jacket that he doffed after the first number. He was paired with Maya Jacobson as Javi’s love interest, “Sarah,” who had the first solo song, an emotional, well-acted “Just Subway Stops Away.”
The talented Henry Gainza performed the unlikely title, “Phlebotomist,” after a touching moment speaking about his Cuban parents. The beautiful ballad “Mi Peru” has Mr. Martínez asking the musical question, “New York, will you ever feel like home?”
He humorously feigned jealousy at Florencia portraying another man’s wife when she performed a duet on “Mama” with Robi Hager. “Robi, I’ll see you at the end! Florencia, I’ll see you at home!”
Mr. Martínez, an electrifying tenor, set up his first of two duets with Ms. Jacobson, “DJ Can You Hear” explaining that Javi and Sarah could not help but notice their growing connection. The dynamic pair have strong chemistry.
“Wings on My Sneakers” featured Rodd Cyrus, a tall fellow with smoldering good looks and a warm tenor voice. Much like a Hamilton song, “Wings” combined traditional melodies with rap, which Mr. Cyrus slipped between seamlessly. “Wings” was followed by a three-tenor showstopper, “Rules Are Meant to Be Broken,” which is a traditional Broadway song complete with a verse, introduced by Henry Gainza. “Our trio of three,” Mr. Lozano declared, to much laughter.
Musa Hitomi spoke about not getting the joke when told something was “in Greek” (as in, “It’s all Greek to me”). “I speak Japanese, Korean and English. Why do I feel stupid”, she asked, before breaking into “Three Languages.”
Jaime spoke candidly of his challenges as an immigrant trying to make a name for himself in the theater. He asked, rhetorically, “Why am I telling you all this?” Because, he asserted, “we are all immigrants.”
The ensemble performed the finale, “How Blessed Are We,” working in pairs and sharing mics. Mr. Cyrus, who appears to be about 6’3”, was matched with the almost equally tall Nyselki Vega, who did not have a solo number, but nonetheless had a strong presence.
Present Perfect has the makings of a wonderful, important musical. In fact, there were several theater investors in the audience. This reviewer boldly predicts that this night at 54 Below will one day be an important anniversary for them and all who attended.
New Musical: Present Perfect! took place at on November 9 at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, between Eighth Avenue and Broadway. (54below.com)
Photos: Melissa Griegel Photography