BWW Review: Musical Ladies Triumph in the Delightful AMERICAN MARIACHI at South Coast Repertory
Stories about women defying conventions to engage in activities traditionally reserved for men are certainly not new in theater, but in the case of playwright José Cruz González's joyful, musical-leaning play AMERICAN MARIACHI, that usual narrative theme feels refreshed as it presents a cheerful, Latinx-centric spin that will leave audiences of all backgrounds, ages, and genders enriched and satisfied of having experienced something so universally charming and heartwarming.
Though on the onset it may be the play's generous humor that is to blame for why we are all so entertained, it is actually the play's genuine, eventually touching portrait of family bonds and female sisterhood that give the story its true heft.
Serving as the gloriously buoyant 56th season-opening production at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, AMERICAN MARIACHI---which continues performances at the Tony Award-winning theater through October 5, 2019---is set sometime in the mid-1970's, where the jeans are bell-bottomed, and female self-empowerment is just hitting its stride. The play mostly focuses on young dreamer and nursing student Lucha (the luminous Gabriella Carrillo) and her empathetic mission to rekindle a spark of connection with her ailing mother Amalia (Diana Burbano), who we learn is suffering from dementia.
With her mother's cognizance increasingly deteriorating right in front of the family every day---further clouding her memory of her past and her awareness of the present---Lucha's traditionalist, authoritarian father Federico (Mauricio Mendoza), a member of a very busy, in-demand traveling mariachi band, often relies on Lucha to take care and keep a close watch over Amalia.
It's a daily task she, of course, does not take lightly. But, as expected, Lucha wants more out of her life than just being her ailing mother's attendant.
As it does for most of us, the idea that "music is memory" is a constant theme that runs through AMERICAN MARIACHI, stoking the characters' and our visceral connections with music. Music can trigger emotions, instantly transporting its listeners to recollect a memory or a past feeling. This is exactly what Lucha discovers when she finds a secret mystery 45 L.P. record, marked simply "A.M." Once Lucha plays the record, her mother---normally silent and mostly catatonic, save for some seemingly random but vividly pained cries---suddenly perks up, clearly exhibiting a joyous if slightly longing reaction to the sounds of the mariachi song emanating from the found vintage vinyl.
The mystery behind the record gets even more intriguing when Federico---upon hearing the recording when he returns home---flies into a rage that puzzles his daughter. Why does her stern father want to stifle the one bit of joy that awakens her mother? What is he hiding?
Tensions worsen when the evidently one-of-a-kind L.P. breaks during a rather terse argument, leaving mother and daughter understandably distraught. Amalia snaps from her temporary happiness and reverts back to the entrapment of her illness.
And so begins Lucha's valiant quest: to teach herself how to sing and play mariachi music in the hopes of somehow recreating the song on the now shattered record---which she feels can bring at least a bit of joy and familiarity for her mom. Both women need a win and we as an audience desperately want her to get it.
Of course, ii is no surprise that in her Chicano surroundings, Lucha must do this project for her mom in secret... not only because her father expressly forbids it, but also because conventions of the times dictate that Mariachi music remain a predominantly male-dominated form of musical expression.
Luckily, she is greeted with plenty of enthusiasm from her spirited spit-fire cousin Hortensia (the very funny Satya Jnani Chavez, who provides a perfect comic counterpart to the more even-tempered Burbano). Together, the gusto-empowered close cousins set off to recruit members for their all-female mariachi troupe, even though neither of them can play instruments either.
There is, naturally, much reliable comedy mined from the initial series of scenes that show the pair going from one location to another to find their rag-tag group of misfit gals whose singing prowess and sheer determination far exceeds their actual musical instrument-playing abilities.
The recruits---who like Lucha and Hortensia all long to improve upon or break out from their current situations---include Isabel (the riff-tastic Alicia Coca), a church choir singer with a heavenly voice and a domineering husband (Andrew Joseph Perez) that insists she stay tethered to the kitchen; nerdy Gabby (the hilarious Luzma Ortiz) who wants to break out from her debilitating shyness; and finally bawdy local hairstylist Soyla (Marlene Montes), a cougar as fierce as you'd expect who's looking for another challenge.
A former family friend Mino (Sol Castillo) agrees to mentor the newly-formed quintet on the down low, providing them with instruments, lessons (both musical and historical), and a secret rehearsal space away from view of the town and, of course, Lucha's strict father who would probably not like any of this. We glean a shared past between Mino and Federico that resulted in a bitter falling out between them-that may or may not involve Amalia.
If the more dramatic portions of the play sound like they were ripped right out of a telenovela, it's not for lack of trying. Genre elements do creep in balanced by plenty of comedy that keeps the audience riveted and invested. Director Christopher Acebo keeps the entire play moving in a comfortable forward momentum with nary a lag for its 90-minute, no intermission running time, incorporating gorgeous transitions via live mariachi performances that highlight the beauty and artistry of this musical genre, and working in harmony with Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz' striking lighting design, Kish Finnegan's spectacularly detailed costumes, and Efren Delgadillo Jr.'s culturally authentic scenic design that blends 70's kitsch with old world charm. Sound designer Rebecca Kessin envelopes the stage with punctuated sound to complete our full immersion in this ultimately wonderful story.
More laughs arrive as the all-girl mariachi band go through its paces, eventually landing a gig that, well, you'll see when you watch the show---which I urge you to. Suffice it to say, such secret activities never stay secret for long. And with practice comes improvement, which the audience will cheer on.
In between the drama, an actual mariachi band---featuring Esteban Montoya Dagnino on trumpet, Sayra Michelle Haro and Adam Ramirez on violin, Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on vihuela---move in and out of scenes to provide the play its gorgeous, high-energy soundtrack which range from celebratory and triumphant to somber and haunting.
The story continues with its purposeful path that you can almost see right from the start: that Lucha's---and her all-female crew's---tenacity and willingness to subvert expectations, as one might expect, are rewarded with eventual acceptance. In a way, that predictability is of great comfort while watching AMERICAN MARIACHI, a play that aims to shine a spotlight on a cultural specific story that also speaks with a clear universal emotional language. It's resonating existence in our geopolitical landscape today isn't at all just mere coincidence.
Though there is a bit of untranslated Spanish spoken (and sung) throughout the play (those who understood some dialogue got to experience extra laughs over us non-speakers), the comedy is broad enough to feel decipherable for all. A giddy and uplifting new play that might as well be classified as a musical, AMERICAN MARIACHI is not just a story of triumphing through obstacles, it is also a theatrically-presented testament for the strong pull of family, no matter what culture you may come from. I won't spoil the ending, but all I can say is that the audience---made up of various ethnicities, economic backgrounds, genders, ages, and orientations---all sniffled and shed tears and cheered and applauded together in collective, communal enjoyment.
Speaking as a child of immigrants, the story and its music resonated with me in its own unique way. I, too, am quite familiar with the need to uphold family traditions and obligations and representing my native culture positively, but I am also cognizant in making sure that I develop extensions of my own identity and ideology that makes me a unique individual capable of subverting expectations.
Honor isn't solely achieved by simply adhering to tradition, it's about enhancing, improving, and growing to be well-rounded. Each character struggles with this notion and with the power and resonance of music, common ground can be found.
AMERICAN MARIACHI, I guarantee, will speak---and sing---to you, too.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
South Coast Repertory presents AMERICAN MARIACHI by José Cruz González. Directed by Christopher Acebo. Performances continue at South Coast Repertory through October 5, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.