Anthony J. Piccione
- New York Theatre Critic
For younger audiences, it can often be easy to forget the horrors of oppression and censorship that came throughout Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. While some had hope for the revolution against the wicked Batista, it only was replaced by yet another regime that was so lacking in freedom of speech and expression, it forced many to flee and seek a more open society. It is exactly these reasons for fleeing to the U.S. that Petro Pan – one of several new outings being presented this year at the New York Musical Festival – seeks to remind theatergoers.
Written by Rebecca Aparicio with music and lyrics by Stephen Anthony Elkins, the story is set in the early 1960s, right before the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S. embargo on Cuba. It follows Pedro, a young boy born in Cuba who lives with his parents in communist Cuba, only to be sent away by his parents to live with his Tia (Aunt) Lily in New York, in the hopes that he can grow up to live a more free and prosperous life. However, Pedro finds himself having a hard time, along the way, as he adjusts to life in a new and unfamiliar city.
To be sure, many aspects of the show are relatively cliché. Young boy has trouble fitting in at new school, having just one or two friends to always be there, being separated from parents and missing them, etc. However, the main problem confronting this show’s plot has little to do with that, and everything to do with the fact that the entire second half feels rushed. Pedro doesn’t arrive in NYC until the first third of the show is complete, despite the fact that that’s when the real story seems to be ready to unfold. Just as our lead character is starting to explore his new surroundings at school, meets the other lead characters, and confronts his inner emotions on his life situation, the show comes to a sudden climax where, all of a sudden, he takes a U-turn and decides he’s totally happy with everything, despite the last scene suggesting the exact opposite, and not much reason being given for such a sudden change of heart. It would have been nice to see some of the above themes explored further and deeper, before the show’s conclusion.
With this show comes a largely Cuban-influenced musical score from Mr. Elkins, which is catchy at times, but largely unmemorable, at the end of the day. Also, while it could just be me, some of the happy and optimistic aspects of the music’s overall tone somehow do not fit entirely with some of the show’s darker moments, as far as I’m concerned. None of this is to say that the music was terrible, per se, but it’s not exactly the type of score that makes this musical stand out, either.
Leading the cast of this musical is Gregory Diaz IV, who – while not the strongest child singer I’ve seen – brings a sufficient level of charm and emotion to the character of Pedro, over the course of the show. Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Genny Lis Padilla both do a fair job portraying Pedro’s parents, while Natalia Toro balances both good comedic timing and emotional tenderness at different moments as Tia Lily, and Julian Silva gives an enthusiastic performance as Roger. However, the real gem in this cast is Taylor Caldwell, who steals the show later on with the musical number “Beautiful” in the role of Wendy. All the actors are also staged and choreographed expertly, with both director Melissa Crespo and choreographer Sidney Erik Wright contributing greatly to this show.
One more notable highlight: It all takes place in front of a large projection screen that displays a colorful projection design from Lisa Renkel, which does as good a job as any show I’ve reviewed over the past year or so, in terms of capturing both the scenery and atmosphere of each individual scene.
While it definitely has its flaws, there are plenty of the aspects of the show that I’m sure will be appreciated by certain theatergoers, and I’m sure it will not go lost upon many the comparison between the discrimination of immigrants and refugees then and now, and how very little (if anything) has changed. With just a few more rewrites, I could easily see this show having a brighter future, and certainly finding a large audience – particularly in these dark times – that will appreciate its message and its story.
“Pedro Pan” – presented by the New York Musical Festival and White Elk Productions, LLC – runs at Theatre Row from July 10th to 14th. For more information, please visit www.pedropanthemusical.com.