The Happiest Song Plays Last, the final installment of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy,” is as globe girdling as the two prior works, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, and Water by the Spoonful. The first play was a generational story of three Marines who went to war and were damaged physically and emotionally. Grandpop served in the icy winters of Korea; Pop survived the humid jungles of Viet Nam, while Elliot (Peter Pasco) had his soul damaged in Iraq when his first “kill” was an innocent civilian whose death has haunted him ever since.
The Happiest Song Plays Last takes two story paths around the time of the Arab Spring kicked off by the massive, sometimes violent, protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Elliot, who gained a modicum of fleeting fame starring in a toothpaste commercial, has been hired as a military consultant for a film being shot in Jordan. When the star is canned for being self important and undirectable, Elliot gets the role. He falls for the leading lady, Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), an American girl of mixed Middle Eastern heritage and other ethnic blends. Ali (Kamal Marayati), a driver as well as a general factotum for the production, befriends the Americans going so far as to invite them into his home.
Meanwhile, halfway across the globe, Elliot’s cousin Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a character introduced in Water by the Spoonful, has given up a promising career in music to become a well-loved fixture in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of North Philadelphia. After the death of Elliot’s mother Ginny, Yaz sold her grand piano, bought Ginny’s house and became a social activist and a resource for the community, feeding many people every day out of her kitchen. Her friend and mentor, the music teacher Agustin (Al Rodrigo), is a married man twenty years her senior who drinks too much and woos her with sloppy sentimentality. A street guy named Lefty (John Seda-Pitre) calls Yaz “Mom.” She sort of adopted him after his mother died and he comes and goes at will through Yaz’s always-unlocked kitchen door. The stories connect when the cousins text each other or talk face to face with their phones.
The title gives a clue as to the importance of music, not just in The Happiest Song Plays Last, but also throughout the trilogy. Bach was crucial in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, and Coltrane was the musical soul of Water by the Spoonful. In The Happiest Song Plays Last, Nelson González, a Grammy Award winner, gives the show its Latino passion playing the guitar and singing traditional Puerto Rican songs.
Compared to the previous plays in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last lacks focus and seems to wander in their stories to little effect. It doesn’t help that at some times in some scenes the dialogue is hard to follow. In places, perhaps as much thirty percent of what is spoken is unclear. That may be a problem with the auditorium’s acoustics. The projections that accompany the Skype-like conversations are so far out of sync with the sound that they became a distraction. This may be a one-time, fixable situation, or maybe not.
The Happiest Song Plays Last is directed by Edward Torres, with scenic design by Se Hyun Oh, lighting design by John A. Garofalo, sound design by Ivan Robles, projections design by Yee Eun Nam, costume design by Dianne K. Graebner, and Eric Babb is the prop master. The stage manager is Emily Lehrer.
The Latino Theater Company production of The Happiest Song Plays Last runs through March 19 in The Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Tom Bradley Theater.