A real-life sex-trafficking scheme is the subject of the new tango-infused musical “Las Polacas: The Jewish Girls of Buenos Aires,” and Mariano Vales’s spidery score is a good match for the dark story at Gala Hispanic Theatre. Violin and bandoneon dominate the moody five-piece orchestra, creating a music of menace and dread.
It’s also a music of dance, although there is virtually none of that in this static world-premiere production. Despite the seductive score, the tale is told with disappointing literal-mindedness and cliche-bound dialogue that grows purple with villains and victims.
The facts are certainly compelling. The book by Patricia Suarez-Cohen explores a slave-running operation that created a pipeline of Jewish girls duped from poverty in Poland to a brutal life in Argentine brothels. Rachela (Samantha Dockser) is the hapless young target here, and the story toggles back and forth between 1917 Poland and 1923 Buenos Aires.
In Buenos Aires, Rachela is already a hard-bitten tart sharing quarters with an experienced floozy named Margot (a sparkling Ana Fontan). In Poland, we see Rachela’s mother, Golde (Amy McWilliams), as a kind of Dolly Levi who is matchmaking local girls with an Argentine smoothie named Schlomo (Martin Ruiz); Schlomo is a major pimp back home. “Shtetl Diamonds” is Golde’s bartering song, and director Mariano Caligaris has Dockser whirl dresser’s dummies into view as Golde describes the women for sale. It’s as close to a production number as the show gets.
Where can this story go? Golde agonizes but goes for the money, selling her daughter to Schlomo. But wait: Rachela has a beau, sort of, in the bashful Polish lad Micah (Joshua Morgan). Micah’s an idealistic crusader who wants to save the world; at one point, he miserably shares a train seat with the oily Schlomo, who, in song, glibly offers chocolates. These two are destined for a showdown.
Personal rivalries are further amped when Rachela, who naively thinks she’s married on the up-and-up to Schlomo, gets chippy with Margot. The narrative package begins to feel far too small for its sweeping and woeful subject, and the whole thing snaps when, in Argentina, Micah figures out that Schlomo’s a pimp and the world is horrible. Underlining the overemphasis as the catastrophe crests, the stage gets bathed in red light.
The show is in English and Spanish, and the bilingual approach comes across easily, thanks to projected surtitles, and at least there are appealingly flashy performances from Fontan and Ruiz. Schlomo gets a lot of stage time but not much interesting to say, yet somehow Ruiz is always watchable as he cruises about the stage like a dapper gallant.
Fontan, too, brings vivid detail to an underwritten part. As a dame who has seen it all, she radiates cynicism and routine. Even so, the way “Las Polacas” is constructed makes it near impossible to invest in this story.
Book by Patricia Suarez-Cohen, music and lyrics by Mariano Valdes. English adaptation of lyrics and text by Bari Biern. Directed by Mariano Caligaris. Music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; set, Luciana Stecconi; lights, Mary Keegan; costumes, Collin Ranney; sound design, Jesse Free. With Juan Bianchi and Carlos E. Macher. About 2