Review: SOMEWHERE OVER THE BORDER Adds New Grooves to an Old Story at City Theatre

This new musical runs September 23-October 15 at City Theatre

By: Oct. 12, 2023
Review: SOMEWHERE OVER THE BORDER Adds New Grooves to an Old Story at City Theatre
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I was lucky enough to see Brian Quijada's previous City Theatre show several years ago, so when his latest piece was announced in co-production with Pittsburgh CLO and People's Light, I knew I had to see it. Right away, I was won over upon entering the theatre by the four-and-a-half-piece band grooving through a preshow set. (The "half" is one man Greek chorus Arusi Santi, who plays guitar and percussion throughout the show.) Led by music director and orchestrator Michael Meketa, the bottom-end-heavy group rocks and grooves its way through a number of songs in various styles across the Latin-American diaspora before the show begins, getting the audience in a lightly "party" mood.

Though Somewhere Over the Border, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, might have some elements of party to it, it doesn't shy away from the darkness and tragedy at the heart of the show's story. Based on playwright/composer Quijada's mother's immigration journey, the tale follows teen mother Reina (Isabella Campos), who attempts to flee El Savador in the shadow of civil war. She knows a better life for her son awaits in America, but legal immigration has been closed off to her, so she decides to sneak in over the border. Though her journey takes on elements of the classic "Wizard of Oz" plot structure, she discovers this is no fairy tale when she makes it to the headquarters of the Gran Coyote (Arusi Santi, one of half a dozen roles) and reality sets in.

From the start of the show, where Santi sings and raps an introduction to Reina's neighborhood over a simple percussive breakdown, it's impossible not to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's influence on Quijada. Then again, show me ANY theatre writer of the last ten years who hasn't been influenced by Miranda... I'll wait. Quijada has tricky needle to thread, since the show's tone is light-hearted and a little winking but the subject matter of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is pretty heavy. Thankfully, he locates the central point between the two tones in his touches of magic realism, blending the familiar Oz story beats and characters with their grittier El Salvadorean equivalents. The Yellow Brick Road becomes a bus route, the brain-seeking Scarecrow a would-be agricultural student (Jerreme Rodriguez), the heartless Tin Man a heartbroken drunk (Bobby Plasencia) and the Cowardly Lion a nun with big dreams but a tendency to overreact (Gloria Vivica Benavides). The only place where the parallels don't quite gel is in the role of Julia (Ariana Valdes), Reina's mother back home in Chanmico. Cast as a hybrid Auntie Em and Wicked Witch, she never quite fits into either archetype, though her songs as a reluctant single grandmother to her own daughter's seemingly-abandoned child truly tug at the heartstrings. The small but mighty band, and Meketa's orchestrations, fill out the show's world admirably, a perpetual underpinning of multifaceted percussion pushing along like the show's heartbeat. You'd never guess it was just four musicians... okay, four and a half.

The cast is great, particularly in the interplay between Campos and Rodriguez (playing both Reina's brother and the student she bonds with on her journey). Bobby Plasencia has fantastic comic timing in both his roles, and every tiem Gloria Vivica Benavides opens her mouth to sing, this massive rafter-shaking roar comes forth that leaves the audience breathless. New CMU graduate Isabella Campos takes her starring role all the way from start to finish, beginning the show a naive dreamer and ending it a force of nature to be recknoned with. Campos clearly has quite a career ahead of her, in Pittsburgh and beyond. But Arusi Santi's star turn as the Narrator and all his other roles is clearly this show's star vehicle. A gifted musician, impressionist, singer, rapper and actor, Santi may pop in and out of the narrative but he casts a large shadow over it at all times.

Finally, attention must be paid to Chelsea Warren's set, Cat Wilson's lights and Joe Spinogatti's projections. This is one of the most elaborate sets I've ever seen at City Theatre, complete with transforming unit pieces, pop-outs, animated projections and a full-scale turntable for dancing on. Clearly, no expense has been spared on this show... all that's missing is a cast recording to purchase in the lobby. (Fingers crossed this show records with this cast, though I know it's a rarity.) Brian Quijada is a rising star, and if this show is his thesis for the career to follow, don't miss your opportunity to see it here first.


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