Barrio Babies opens with the central character, Ray Reyes, accepting an award from the Off-off-Broadway Alternative Theater Coalition for "Best Hispanic Play in a Non-Latino Theater."
The politically irreverent musical takes its cue from there, continuing through a comic treatment of a Puerto Rican playwright trying to make it in Hollywood, complete with all the ethnic stereotypes and casting limitations the Latino theatrical community has endured since the days they were valued as "exotic." It's a world where "a junkie mother here, an illegal alien there" are the choice parts, and where the big payday comes when an actor is rewarded with a line like "Coffee, seor?" or "OK, everybody down on the floor."
Reyes sways one minute toward sticking to the authenticity of his screenplay about his grandmother and counterswaying in the next minute to compromising with the producers who want to turn his script into "Moonstruck meets Pulp Fiction with a little touch of Forrest Gump."
The creators of the show clearly have their own tightrope to walk, although the gravitational forces pulling at them don't show through in the production. Cuban-Americans Luis Santeiro (book and lyrics) and Fernando Rivas (music) mix a bitingly satiric attack on the status quo with an upbeat, imaginative storytelling style honed in their extensive experience writing for Sesame Street, where they won a combined 14 Emmys. They hope to eventually bring their play to New York, following in the footsteps of last year's Tony-nominated It Ain't Nothing But the Blues, another DCTC original.
Among the challenges is finding a way to fit the distinctive Latino musical tradition into a framework defined by the expectations of the musical theater. Although the music is almost always good, the only memorable melody is more like a tune you can't get out of your head than the kind of accompaniment that sends you dancing to the parking lot.
A couple numbers more memorable for their visual effect than their musical fluency include "Make Love to Me in Spanish," in which two characters sing from beneath the covers of an upright bed, giving the audience the illusion of watching them from a ceiling mirror, and "The Big Banana," the closest the show come to a big production number, complete with 6-foot-tall dancing bananas against a technicolor Caribbean backdrop.
The play is a crowd-pleaser, even though DCTC's WASP-y season subscribers are often reluctant to laugh at the politically incorrect treatment of the Latino stereotypes. With a six-member cast jumping in and out of commercials, auditions and screenplays within the play, the show sets the perfect pace for attention-span-challenged audiences, setting up quick sketches and 180-degree plot turns to keep the audience on its toes while searching for the elusive artistic integrity perpetually out of Reyes' reach.
The play's greatest weakness is that, despite its consistent surface-level entertainment, the characters don't get enough of a chance to emerge on their own as fully developed creations interesting enough to make us care about their fate. Sara Ramirez gives the best performance of the night in the role of Josie Lopez, an actress who grew up with Reyes, sharing his "New Yorican" background before watching him sellout for mainstream success. Her show-stopping vocals elevate the play whenever she's got a solo, and her character is the most substantially scripted of the ensemble. Philip Anthony, however, plays Reyes as a too-slick, pre-packaged pretty-boy, making it difficult for the audience to feel appropriately sympathetic to the play's central character.