A few years ago, when Jamie Jackson and SoHee Youn set out to write a musical comedy about pesky Russian spies and foreigners vying for a piece of the American Dream in New York, they had no way of knowing that the heinous treatment of immigrants by the US government would come to dominate the news cycle. Or that Russia would be accused of swaying the calamitous 2016 presidential election and re-emerge as a dire threat to American democracy.
And yet, despite an extensive workshop process, “I Spy A Spy” insists on taking a broad, almost puerile approach to the material, trafficking in overworn tropes and stereotypes. The Russian characters, part of a spy ring to take down America, have code names like Cold Borscht and Beef Stroganoff and speak in ludicrous accents. One US official is named Agent Orange and the guns they brandish are neon-hued water pistols.
The current political landscape calls for a shrewd, incisive satire à la “Avenue Q,” but this feels more like that 1960s cartoon where Rocky and Bullwinkle thwart Russian villains Boris and Natasha. This unfunny, lightweight tuner is utterly tone deaf.
Even the press materials describe the twisty plot as “preposterous.” The action revolves around would-be lovers José Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who dreams of being a famous actor, and Alina Orlova, an inept spy from Moscow torn between pleasing her father by sticking with the spy biz and finding her true calling.
There’s a parallel simmering romance between Abdul Mahkdoom (Sorab Wadia), who runs a Pakistani pizza joint, and his rival Sunny Park (Hazel Anne Raymundo), who owns the Korean grocery across the street. They spend much of their day spying on each other with binoculars. Is it because they want to discover trade secrets or are they just infatuated with one another? Who cares?
Swirling subplots involve a ruthless Mexican Mafiosa who menaces José, a “Face of New York” contest held by a bigoted mayor, members of the Department of Homeland Security, a Russian hacker from the dark web, and a slew of other characters impossible to track. Even Jimmy Fallon makes a brief appearance.
The dialogue is freighted with superfluous expository details. The two and a half hour running time could easily be trimmed to streamline the plot.
That’s not to say there aren’t some clever touches. The vibrant, pastel colored set of an urban landscape, by James Morgan, is pleasing to the eye. Any New Yorker will appreciate the detailed posters advertising Shen Yun or Dan Smith the guitar teacher. What’s more, the bulk of “I Spy A Spy” is set in the heart of present-day Hell’s Kitchen, only steps away from the Theatre at St. Clement’s where the work is making its Off Broadway debut.
What keeps this wobbly endeavor from careening off the rails are key performances, under the direction of Bill Castellino (who also choreographed). Andrew Mayer is tenderly affecting as the plucky go-getter José, who finds he has hidden talents as a sleuth. He exudes a charming Lin-Manuel Miranda aura that’s unmistakable.
Emma Degerstedt paints a complex inner life for Alina, as she reluctantly navigates the rocky transition from drab, stilted spy to alluring starlet. As the Mafiosa bent on extorting poor José, Nicole Paloma Sarro finely shades an otherwise stock character. Whenever she is onstage, the production gets a welcome jolt of electricity.
The musical numbers are a mixed bag (Jackson wrote the lyrics, Youn the music). There are too many “I want” songs about hankering for a new life in America, and they blend together in their sameness. One standout is an emotionally rich, triumphant solo ballad by Degerstedt, where Alina defiantly bids farewell to living her life for others. Kudos to music director Dan Pardo and his skilled band, which did not miss a beat.
To be fair, I confess my disappointment with “I Spy A Spy” is partly due to a sensitivity to its topical, politically charged subject matter. When a cartoonish “Ruskie scumbag” sings lyrics like, “From Bombay to Berlin, we can guarantee a win, in a free and fair election,” I don’t chuckle, I cringe.
I SPY A SPY | The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. | Through Aug. 10: Tue. at 7 p.m., Wed.-Thu. at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. | $79-$99 at ispya