Review – Mexican Hayride – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells 2011 series

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This is my second year of going to the Lost Musicals series at Sadler’s Wells. It’s been a pretty successful batch of shows for me, with musicality, lyrics, and plotlines that leave most of the West End’s output in the dust. However, just as in new shows, it’s not too surpising that the occasional flop (by modern standards) will come in amongst the gold nuggets, and for the 2011 series, Mexican Hayride is the red haired stepchild of the year.

So about Mexican Hayride. First of all, this show has almost nothing to do with the movie (if you were wondering), and, to be honest, it doesn’t have all that much to do with Mexico, either. An American (Joe Bascom, played by Michael Roberts) joins the expat crowd at a bullring and inadvertently catches the ear that Madame Matador “Montana” (Louise Gold) throws into the audience, thereby earning a week of being “The American Friend” (or something like that) and being feted by the local populace. However, Bascom is trying to keep a low profile, as he’s left the states after running a numbers racket and has got a wife (Montana’s sister Lillian, Lana Green) hot on his heels. That doesn’t keep him from trying to get back into the business when he sees an opportunity. Most of the show, then, revolves around Bascom being chased, either by the girls he wants (a great excuse for the song “Girls”) or the law, which he wishes to avoid. Scenes are set on a boat on the lake (with mariachis), at a bullring, at a hotel, and at a gas station … and while there’s a lot of motion there just isn’t a lot of plot.

I’m actually unfamiliar with most of the musicals that appeared during the 20s, 30s, and 40s because so very many of them were made and history has rather nicely weeded out a lot of the chaff. We’ve moved away from the screwball comedy powered by known stars toward shows driven by plot with songs that illuminate character as well as action. I had a peep at the old way of doing things when I saw Drowsy Chaperone, a loving spoof of this style and a show which I enjoyed tremendously. So when I read the description of Mexican Hayride, I thought “Oh! Here we have crooks on the lam disguised as tortilla vendors, an American female matador, and an angry wife looking for her shyster husband! Maybe they can even fit in a monkey! And Cole Porter wrote the songs, awesome!”

Awesome it was not, but rather directionless and thin on the ground, so much so that in the latter half of the first act I could no longer keep my focus and found myself incapable of keeping my eyes open. The woman next to me was already dozing hard enough to jab her elbow into my leg, and later I found two others in my group of four had fought a losing battle with the Sandman. I know I saw all of the act, but I don’t remember much of scenes four and five anymore – oh, for a stalls-side tea delivery!

What’s a shame about this show is that there were a pile of really good performances attempting to claw their way through the nonexistent plot. Louise Gold was as wonderful and warm as Montana she had been in Darling of the Day, and in the central role of Joe Bascom, Michael Roberts cranked up the silly and did all sorts of eyebrow-waggling and mugging that were needed to accompany his many bad jokes (frequently about boobs).
Wendy Ferguson as Lolita Cantine had a lovely turn performing “Sing to Me Guitar,” showing off a nice set of classically trained pipes, and had comedic timing that shone throughout the show.

But … but … my funny bone just isn’t tickled by hammy acting or crude humor. But after the interval, things took a real turn southward as 60 years of social progress vanished in a flip of a serape. Forget mere sexual innuendo: we now had “lazy Mexicans” (yes they all sleep during the siesta, at work, on the floor, and they won’t do anything because they are sleeping), “red Indians” (they make tomahawk moves wth their arms and dance in a circle), and a “squaw and papoose” selling tortillas (which I think Herbert or Dorothy Fields got confused with tacos). My companions and I turned and stared at each other with our mouths open: was this for real? Was this really what they used to do back in the 40s? While in the context of a historically accurate remount of a show it kind of made sense, we three were shocked by this painful racism played for comedy. Wow. We are all just children of a very different era.

While I could forgive this (only in context, not as a full-blown remount), it doesn’t detract from the fact that the songs also seem generally second rate, some stuff Porter glued together from pieces of his back catalogue (I swear “Abracadabra” was a completely different song from another musical with just a different word in the chorus). Supposedly he cut several other songs from this musical between its debut in Boston and its Broadway opening (January 1944), and while I’m sorry to have lost “Tequila,” I’m more sorry that a bit more plot wasn’t added in, Given the fact this show was never produced in London, I think it may just be a relic of its times, less of a misplaced golden oldie and more of a rightfully out-to-pasture oldster. If you’ve got tickets for the series, do make sure you have an espresso before you go in and then put your 1940s blinders on during the interval; otherwise, I’m afraid there just isn’t enough charm in this show to carry the evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 17th, 2011. It continues on Sundays through August 7th.)

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One Response to “Review – Mexican Hayride – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells 2011 series”

  1. JA Scott Says:

    Just thought I’d pick up on a couple of your points in your review, which I think is a pretty fair one (and thank you for using the phrase “red headed stepchild”, which I haven’t heard since leaving California!).

    I agree the piece is a very flawed one that probably existed to serve the schtick of the original performers in a variety style. It wasn’t so long ago that the “Carry On” films were the must-sees of British cinema, thin on plot, and heavy on allowing each of the company of repertory players a turn in the spotlight to do their trademark “business”. I guess the “Police Academy” films or “Cannonball Run” would be essentially the same, and they date only from the 1980s, so I don’t have a problem with the loose nature of the book, though, I agree, that much “funny” can be like gorging on chocolate cake; it becomes a bit cloying in the end. I think also, originally, that some of the “funny” would have been diluted by set-piece dance numbers (like at the bullfight), which, naturally, are omitted from this re-staging.

    The series is very good, I think, at placing the shows in context of the history of Broadway, but not always, I think, in context of social, economic or political history, which – in this case – is, in my opinion, much more important. The show seems to me a genuine (if flawed) love-letter to Mexico from the USA. After years of Mexican-American wars, the Mexican nation had finally, conclusively sided with the USA in World War Two, being one of only two South American nations to send troops to fight the Axis powers. Hence all the references to “Amigo Americano week” and “good-will” in the show. The otherwise mystifying exchanges between the Russian character and one of the lady tourists also, for example, have a deeper, almost moving, import, once you know that they are recalling Russian towns occupied (and almost extirpated) by the Nazis but valiantly reclaimed by the Russians in the War. All these would have been very immediate, recent, well-known facts to a 1944 audience, just emerging from the most appalling conflict the world had ever seen, and hungry for comedy and diversion, but they would, I think, bear repeating in an introduction to a present-day audience. There is (slightly) more going on in this piece than just froth.

    Similarly, a song about “Carlotta” would be understood by a reasonably well-read smart New Yorker audience of 1944 to be about the tragic “last empress” of Mexico, a genuine piece of haunting Mexican history, and a counterpoint to the jollity of the show, not just a piece of lyrical “filler” as it seems today. Of course, you can’t footnote a play in performance, but if an introduction is provided, it might be interesting to include things like this, especially if the idea is to present the play “as was”, in context.

    On the charge of racism, well, yes, there are some notions, references and words that, now, are odious to us. It’s a difficult call, I imagine. Even Shakespeare and Marlowe, towering acclaimed dramatists whose reputation is unassailable, give directors problems with (to our ears) anti-semitic, racist and misogynistic sentiment now and then. I’m guessing you’re a little younger than me, but, within my lifetime, it was certainly possible to create whole (and VERY successful) sitcom runs on ideas that now would horrify people: British television, well into the 1980s, managed “Mind Your Language” (a group of stereotyped foreigners in an EFL school) and (in the 1970s) “Love Thy Neighbour”, an entire show based on the premise of a black couple moving next-door to a white couple, who take a “there goes the neighborhood” view of this. Even in our own enlightened era, an acclaimed satirical show like “The Simpsons” can make horrible lapses of judgement in episodes set in, say Brazil, or, worse, a portmanteau African country.

    I’m not sure there is a simple answer to the “racist” content in a play like this. The Broadway revival of “Flower Drum Song” provided a pretty good example, but I’m guessing that such adaptation is outside the remit of this project. Even were it not, I’m not sure such sensitivity would be available to inform it. Members of the older generation of British people (who comprise much of the audience, from what I’ve seen, and by whom this series – I think – is produced) have, by and large, little understanding of the history of Native American nations; for them they will ever be the homogenous “Red Indians” of westerns, dancing around with feathers on their heads and suffixing everything with “-um”. I imagine they would even be unaware, unless they’ve spent a great deal of time traveling and working in the US, that there are numerous different nations, and that there are nations, such as the Toltec, Lenca, Mazatec, to be found in Mexico. They’d probably counter with the argument that it’s just the same as having a lecherous, garlic-eating, stripy-top-wearing Frenchman in “Fifty Million Frenchmen”, and that the show is just fluff, and maybe they’re right, though it would be interesting to see what a sensitive American director of the younger generation could do with this material (if anything!). There is also, I guess, an argument for saying that actually the Mexican characters in the play (Jose, Senor Martinez, Miguel, the Merced vendors, who are actually few in number, aside from Lombo) come off rather well as sensible, shrewd, polite figures next to the ridiculous, venal American tourists!

    Anyway, that is probably more time spent considering this show than anyone, even in 1944, ever has done, but I thought I’d try to address some of the points you raised, as they struck a chord with me. It’s great that a project like this, and like Encores in NY, exists, and also wonderful that its attracting young audience members (even to a “red headed stepchild” of a show)!

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