Undocumented Mexican immigrant José Rodriguez is working hard at two jobs while awaiting his big break as an actor. He wants to be seen, though he’d settle for entering a room without being mistaken for the waiter or the janitor. Alina Orlova is striving to blend in in order to continue her family’s tradition of spying for Russia. Unfortunately she is so stunning that she gets noticed no matter which of her worker-bee costumes she dons. When the two are brought together by proximity and chicken tikka pizza, they cook up a plan to collaborate in hopes of fulfilling each other’s missions. But with coyote Prisciliana Espinoza making threats against José and pressure on the Orlovas from new local asset “Beef Stroganoff” the pair must leverage every possible opportunity, including the mayor’s upcoming Face of New York contest.
This is the set-up of I Spy a Spy, the clever new musical which just started a two month Off-Broadway run in the Theater at St. Clements. It was inspired by headlines from eight years ago when a beautiful Russian agent found she enjoyed the local nightlife more than her assignment to bring down America. That germ of an idea has blossomed into a funny and insightful two hours of entertainment. Featuring a pop score by Sohee Youn and witty lyrics by Jamie Jackson, it combines a sincere and relevant immigrant story with some Get Smart level spy craft, touching on our culture’s obsession with all that is beautiful along the way. Set against the backdrop of the diverse Hells Kitchen neighborhood, the cast is purposefully multi-ethnic. At its most sincere moments, the piece is an anthem to the blend of cultures that sustain the American Dream.
Director and choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the adept cast of twelve on their toes as many of them “shape shift” to take us through the layered plot. The hyper-reality is captured in the whirling movement of the actors as well as the illustrated set pieces by James Morgan. Costumes by Tyler Holland keep the look from becoming too fantastical with lights by Michael Gottlieb amping up the effects at key points. It is to be hoped that the issues with sound design during the July 16th preview will be resolved to complete the unique picture.
Anchoring the production is Andrew Mayer’s José. With a powerful voice and expressive face, he makes you root for the character from his first entrance dressed as a Times Square Statue of Liberty. Emma Degerstedt matches his talent as a singer, but she could use more assistance from hair and makeup to take her from sweet looking all the way to Alina’s required irresistibility. Her father Cold Borscht is played with cartoonish perfection by Bruce Warren. Filling out the spy team, John Wascavage has cranked it up to 12 as Beef Stroganoff, a step too far when the humor is apparent in the script. In a secondary plot, the sensational Hazel Anne Raymundo alternately soars and snarks as deli owner Sunny Park. Sorab Wadia is a great counterpart as Abdul Makhdoom, the sweet and socially clumsy owner of the fusion restaurant across the street. Their duet decrying the behavior of tourists is among the show’s audience-pleasers. Of the flexible ensemble (including Grace Choi, Taylor Fields, Connor McShane, Nicole Paloma Sarro, and Lawrence Street) James Donegan does an especially fantastic job of playing multiple hosts with different degrees of swagger and smarminess. It should be noted that in the spirit of the work, Sarro is donating to Families Belong Together.
I Spy a Spy makes for an engaging family-oriented outing or a fun date night at a reasonable price. It’s currently scheduled to run through September 21 at The Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street – between 9th & 10th Avenues). Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 7pm, Thursday at 2pm and 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $79 with premium seating available for $99.