BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents AMERICAN MARIACHI
Sombreros off to the theatre companies that are emphasizing cultural diversity and inclusiveness in their programming and casting and creatively outreaching to new audiences. One of the leaders in the mix, thanks to the artistic directorship of David Ivers (who's off now to take the helm at South Coast Repertory), is Arizona Theatre Company, which has mounted AMERICAN MARIACHI as one of its 52nd Season highlights.
Since its 2018 premiere in Denver, the brainchild of José Cruz González, the former playwright-in-residence at Childsplay, has enjoyed a pretty popular run. Opening Night at the Herberger Theater Center was the Phoenix area's opportunity to chime in ~ and so did the rousing welcome by a full house attest to the show's appeal. The show manages to strike a chord and pull the heart strings of the guitarrón ~ reinforced by the mellifluous strains of the magical and skeletal-faced fiddler on the balcony, Tia Carmen (Stephanie Swift Molina).
From the vantage point of the story line and the presentation, perhaps the clamor of applause may be more a matter of respect and appreciation for the introduction to the genre of mariachi and a genuine empathy for the tender tale of love, misunderstandings, reconciliation, and female empowerment. Why not applaud for all of that?
However, while the cast, led by a totally relatable Christen Celaya delivers pretty decent performances, AMERICAN MARIACHI is pretty standard fare ~ quite sentimental, highly predictable, and composed of a relatively prosaic script. But, other than banging the drum for what is an appeal for female empowerment that cuts across cultures, there is little to learn about la familia that is distinct from other cultures. Were it not for the mariachi music intervals (performed with gusto by Esteban Dagnino, Francisco Javier Molina, Ali Pizarro, and Antonio Pro), the 140-minute no-intermission show (passable as a light-hearted telenovela) might have felt like a test of time.
Celaya, whose authenticity is a radiating force, plays the devoted daughter Lucha to her dementia-weary mother Amalia. Discovering a record of a love song that seems to move her mother's memory, she is determined to sing it before it's not too late. An erstwhile nursing student, she decides to learn the song and form a female mariachi band, notwithstanding the men's-only guitar ceiling and the fierce opposition of her father Federico (Danny Bolero, who excels at holding the high notes), himself an itinerant mariachi.
Lucha liberated ~ and joined by her spitfire cousin Hortensia (the fist-pumping kick-thrusting spunky Satya Inani Chavez) ~ commences to round up a band and pulls together, in a happenstance process of recruitment, a combine of distinct and colorful personalities: the alluring and uninhibited hairstylist Soyla Reyna (Marlene Montes); Gabby Orozco (Osiris Cuen), a somewhat sheepish and apprehensive girl; and Isabel Campos (Alicia Coca), whose aspirations are undercut by her domineering husband (Eduardo Enrikez).
The five receive tutelage in the art and rich history of mariachi from Mino Avila (Sol Castillo), once a bosom friend of Amalia and Federico but now, for reasons to be revealed, estranged. By way of training the ragtag group towards proficiency, we all learn a lesson in the various forms and intricacies of mariachi music. To add luster to the cast, Enrikez comes out as the delightfully flamboyant dude who will outfit them in just the right charro outfits.
Where this story of empowerment ends can be no surprise. In the dramatic way that it is delivered, accentuated by the jubilation of concordance between bands and friends, a tear or two must inevitably fall.
Given that not all Anglo members of the audience are bi-lingual, some may complain that some of the best punchlines are in Spanish. Frankly, it shouldn't be hard to catch the drift from the context of the dialogue. What would be helpful though is the availability of a translation of the lyrics of the key songs.
Directed by Christopher Acebo, the Associate Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, AMERICAN MARIACHI runs through April 21st at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.
Photo credit to Tim Fuller (L to R: Christen Celaya, Osiris Cuen, Marlene Montes, Satya Jnani Chavez, Alicia Coca)