Part espionage story, part rom-com, and part socio-political commentary, I Spy A Spy by Jamie Jackson (book and lyrics) and SoHee Youn (book and music) is a convoluted musical mash-up now making its Off-Broadway debut at The Theatre at St. Clement’s. With direction and choreography by Bill Castellino and musical direction by Dan Pardo, the show lacks the keen wit of a parody, the palpable chemistry of a love story, the gripping drama of a morality play, and a single song that is memorable.
Although set in the summer of 2019, in midtown Manhattan’s melting-pot neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, the theme and style are more throwbacks to the era of the Cold War with Russia in the mid-to-late-20th century, and the preposterous plot evokes the level of a TV sit-com or cartoon of that period – but much, much longer and much less funny, with many of the redundant songs, which go on and on, and then on again, in need of cutting. Ethnic stereotypes and racially-insensitive attempts at humor throughout the dialogue and lyrics are intended as criticisms of the bigotry that persists in America and the ongoing struggles that immigrants face, but most fall flat and are cringe-inducing today. So are the recurrent and flagrantly sexist references to the incompetent female spy’s physical appearance (as in the songs “Fresh Meat” and “Natural Assets”), her inability to perform the job for which she was trained, and her need to be saved by a man, who is romantically attracted to her. The character of a young internet hacker, dressed in jeans, tee, hoodie, and a baseball cap, provides one rare acknowledgment of our current digital age, in a show that is generally outdated and unintentionally offensive.
An uneven cast of twelve is headed by Andrew Mayer, bringing an expressive voice and sympathetic characterization to his lead role as the undocumented Mexican worker/undervalued aspiring actor José Rodriguez, who wants to be recognized (“You Will See Me”) – in contrast with the object of his affection/undercover spy Arlina Orlova (in an uninspired portrayal by Emma Degerstedt), who doesn’t want to be identified. Other performances, under Castellino’s histrionic direction, are plagued by overacting, off-key group harmonies, and a hammy overly explicit direct-address delivery of the joke lines (only the old-school drum roll, cymbal crash, and “ba-dum-bum” are missing).
The artistic design is equally uneven. James Morgan’s eye-catching set provides colorful cartoonish locales for the intertwined storylines of Korean and Pakistani food stall owners, Russian spies, American politicians, and talk-show hosts, in his signature Pop-inspired style. Costumes by Tyler M. Holland support the characterizations of the clichéd roster of figures, but some are noticeably ill-fitted. There were also problems with scratchy sound effects (sound design by One Dream Sound) and failures with the actors’ microphones during the performance I attended.
In trying to address the issues inherent in immigrants’ pursuit of “The American Dream,” I Spy A Spy has its heart in the right place, but its head seems stuck in an earlier time, and its body is in need of a full overhaul.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.