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REVIEW: "American Mariachi" — (SCR) South Coast Repertory

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

"Taking the Machismo Out of Mariachi"

The Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s was a revolutionary time for women in the United States. Women fought their way out of the kitchens and into the streets to protest their unequal treatment.

In the same decade, Hispanic women fought their way into the male-dominated industry of the mariachi. Even as early as 1903, a 13-year old girl named Rosa Quirino performed as a mariachi in western Mexico, eventually leading her own band, although reportedly had to carry a gun to protect herself from those who were unbending and narrow-minded to a female musician onstage.

To most Americans, the word “mariachi” typically conjures up images of barrel-chested men strumming oversized guitars while decked out in embroidered black suits and sombreros, performing in cantinas, bars or restaurants.

Traveling by foot, mule or horse, like wandering minstrels, the ensembles of eight to 12 men played for tips or small sums at village fiestas, weddings and even funerals. They often lacked formal musical training.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1920, Mexico's intellectual elite embraced the music, and it became a national symbol of pride and patriotism. As Mexicans migrated more and more to the U.S., mariachi became an expression of identity that immigrant fathers passed on to their American sons.

And, since the 1850's, mariachi musicians have embraced this proud, masculine reputation of the genre, upholding the culture and consuetude of all-male groups.

But with the advent of feminism, women began raising their voices (and their violins), transcending boundaries, and spreading their musical and vocal wings.

In this world premiere from playwright Jose Cruz González, focusing on family, progress and the freedom to dream big, South Coast Repertory offers their first production of the 2019-2020 season, “American Mariachi,” a montage play that will make your heart beat to the fullest with a wave of contagious and cheerful music – all played live.

Celebrating their 56th season of continually breaking new ground in theatre, SCR’s “American Mariachi,” directed by Christopher Acebo, shines a light on a lesser-known side of the Women’s Liberation Movement and its effect on Latina women.

With its avant-garde theme and intoxicating music, “American Mariachi” sets out to capture a glimpse of this revolutionary time period in a short 100-minute format. Produced by Yvonne & Damien Jordan and Socorro & Ernesto Vasquez, the show feels more like a street party than a stage play. In a performance bursting with enthusiasm, combined with a supreme cast, the production veritably steamrolls over the audience to inspire standing ovations and much praise.

"'American Mariachi’ is very relevant to the climate across this country,” says the award-winning José Cruz González , who was raised by strong, independent women himself. “We’re telling a story about these young women who aspire to something better than the world they’re from – to think bigger and deeper. It’s not just about one person getting ahead, but about them going together. Their unity is their strength.”

González is also a professor of theatre at Cal State LA, and coordinator of The John Lion New Plays Festival, which he created in 1997 to stage the best student works in his playwriting classes. His plays have been produced nationally and, in addition to “American Mariachi,” he has also written “The Astronaut Farmworker,” “The Long Road Today,” “Waking Up in Lost Hills” and “The Magic Rainforest.”

When the lights initially come up, the stage is filled with a live mariachi band, their trumpets blasting and guitars strumming, and Amalia is suddenly up from her chair dancing to an infectious beat. The audience sees her, in her memory, as a younger woman dancing and falling in love. Just as abruptly, she takes her seat again. Soon, all the air is sucked out of the auditorium as we begin to realize the rich depth trapped inside her dementia.

From Left, Gabriela Carrillo, Luzma Ortiz, Marlene Montes, Satya Jnani Chavez, Alicia Coca

Set in the mid-1970s, this comedic drama tells the story of a teenage girl named Lucha (Gabriela Carrilo, “The Prince of Egypt,” “Chess”) who defies convention by striking upon a radical idea to help her connect with her mother, Amalia (Diana Burbano, “Imagine,” “The Long Road Today”), who is living with Alzheimer's disease.

Lucha spends her days caring for her ailing mother, but longs to shake up her gridlocked home life with a little vicissitude. For now, she has had to put her nursing education on hold until the family can raise enough money to help take care of her.

But when a forgotten record album sparks her mother’s memory, Lucha and her cousin Boli, played by Satya Jnani Chavez (“Life on Paper,” “Othello”), realize the only thing that will rescue her mother from her degrading memory is music. Then and there, they both resolve to start an all-girl mariachi group just for her.

Together, the two gather a band of misfit women to join their mariachi group with the main quest of learning her mother’s favorite song. Unfortunately, no one can play an instrument. In desperation, she recruits her estranged uncle to help them learn everything in time to play for her mother.

Diana Burbano

Marlene Montes (“In the Heights,” “Legally Blonde”) plays sexpot hairstylist Soyla, Luzma Ortiz (“Dora the Explorer Live!” -national tour, “In the Heights”) plays painfully shy Gabby, Alicia Coca (“Pippin,” “Heathers The Musical”) is the unfulfilled Isabel, shuttered by an overbearing husband.

Mauricio Mendoza (“Destiny of Desire,” “La Posada Mágica”) is Amalia’s rigid husband Federico and Sol Castillo (“A Christmas Carol,” “The Night Fairy”) is the caring instrument-maker Mino, a mariachi, as well as Padres Flores.

Mino and Federico are former compadres who have not spoken to each other in years because of a misunderstanding between the two. It’s a story complicated by macho stubbornness. Andrew Joseph Perez (“In the Heights,” “Man of La Mancha”) also wins laughs in multiple roles, slick and delinquent, as Mateo, Rene, Ruben and Los Muchachos.

Cutting through layers of feelings on the themes of love, memory and trust, the story is at once personal and universal. As the young women in the band each find their way to an individual style, an authentic voice and a collaborative sound, their spirit becomes contagious. Three stories play out, focusing on Amalia’s family dynamic at its center. The others swirl around its orbit and while most of the narrative is predictable, it none-the-less strikes nerves and situations that can happen in any family.

Ms. Carrillo is an irrepressible bundle of energy who provides a delightful rhythm to the story, and Ms. Chavez, instantly likable, delivers lines with such charm and enthusiasm she almost walks away with the show.

Together with the girls in the band, they form a contrapuntal to the strolling mariachi band (Esteban Montoya Dagnino on Trumpet, Sayra Michelle Haro (also playing Tia Carmen) on Violin, Antonio A. Pro with the Guitarron, Ali Pizarro on Vihuela, and Adam Ramirez also on Violin.

Scenic Design is by Efren Delgadillo Jr., and Costume Design is by Kish Finnegan. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz is the Lighting Designer, and Rebecca Kessin handled Sound. Accolades to the Music Director, Cynthia Reifler Flores, and the show is Stage Managed by Moira Gleason. David Ivers is Artistic Director for South Coast Repertory; David Emmes & Martin Benson are Founding Artistic Directors and Paula Tomei is the Managing Director.

“American Mariachi” is being presented on the Segerstrom Stage from September 7th through October 5th. Tickets may be purchased at: Running time is approximately ​one hour and ​​4​0 ​minutes, ​with no intermission. This show is one not to miss and is Highly Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

photos courtesy of Jordan Kubat & SCR


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