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REVIEW: “American Mariachi” — South Coast Repertory at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

A Genre Moving Beyond its Machismo Roots and Shaking up Tradition

South Coast Repertory first produced José Cruz González’s big-hearted play, “American Mariachi,” in the fall of 2019, a story about a group of women who learn to dream big and embrace the transcendent power of music.

The show became an instant hit and captivated audiences at every showing. Continually breaking ground in theatre, SCR offers the warm comedy now again as part of its 2021 Outside SCR summer series. A montage play that will make your heart beat to the fullest with a wave of contagious, cheerful, live music, “American Mariachi” is being performed under the stars within the Mission San Juan Capistrano through July 31st.

Directed by Christopher Acebo, the gorgeously executed production is a tight 90-minute tug at your sensitivities that will echo for days, and shines a light on a lesser-known side of the Women’s Liberation Movement and its effect on Latina women. With the resurgence of the movement in the late ’60s, the fight for gender equality as a mariachi began to achieve traction; but it was a tough, uphill battle, comprised of little victories, as we see in this funny and poignant dramedy from the pen of José Cruz González.

Satya Jnani Chavez , Luzma Ortiz, Gabriela Carrillo

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.

“American Mariachi” sets out to capture a glimpse of this revolutionary time period with its avant-garde theme and intoxicating music. Produced by Sophie & Larry Cripe and John & Laura Drachman, Socorro & Ernesto Vasquez, Jean & Tim Weiss, and Mickey & Nickie Williams, 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.

Excavating layers of feeling on the themes of love, memory and trust, the story is at once personal and universal: A Chicano family. A mother with Alzheimer’s disease.

While some of the dialogue is in Spanish, what’s lost in literal words is gained in authenticity, and the meaning is usually clear enough for non-Spanish-speakers. The story asks what was then a boldly feminist question: Why can’t a girl be in a mariachi band? Outrageous! the traditionalists scoff.

Lucha (Gabriela Carrillo, an irrepressible bundle of energy who provides a delightful rhythm to the story) is trying to finish nursing school, but her father, Federico (Mauricio Mendoza) insists that her first priority is the family, which means taking care of her mother, Amalia (Diana Burbano), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Lucha’s cousin and best friend, Boli (Satya Jnani Chavez, instantly likable, and delivers lines with such charm and enthusiasm she almost walks away with the show) offers to help. They discover an old, unmarked 45 among Lucha’s albums and when they play it, Amalia starts to sing along to the mariachi song, momentarily bringing her back to reality, and to happier times. After Federico hears the record and breaks it in anger, Lucha realizes it may be the one way to connect with her mother through the fog of dementia.

Lucha and Boli then decide to pursue an all-girl mariachi troupe, and set about collecting additional band members — Gabby Orozco (Luzma Ortiz), Soyla Reyna (Crissy Guerrero), and Isabel Campos (Alicia Coca). Never mind that none can play an instrument — they’re determined. At that point, the story moves from telenovela to touching family drama and story of female empowerment.

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.

Gabriela Carrillo, Mauricio Mendoza

Scenery-chewing force-of-nature Crissy Guerrero shimmers as the flamboyant salon owner Soyla. “What husband?” she says when queried like other potential band members. “I’ve only got lovers ... I drive this compact.”

Ultra-shy, ultra-religious Gabby is portrayed by a good-humored side-splitting Luzma Ortiz, and independent-minded, unfulfilled Isabel (Alicia Coca), who is routinely crushed under the thumb of her controlling husband, manages to spread her wings in the end.

Lucha also seeks help from her uncle Mino (an excellent Sol Castillo), instrument maker and player, who used to be Federico’s best friend, until a falling out severed their relationship. He finds instruments for the young women, encourages them to learn to play by ear, and gives them a place to practice, effectively becoming their manager, and snagging them their first gig, at a quinceañera party.

Together with the girls in the band, they form a contrapuntal to the strolling mariachi band — Esteban Montoya Dagnino on Trumpet, Francisco Javier Molina on Violin, Stephanie Swift Molina on Violin/Tía Carmen, Antonio A. Pró on Guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on Vihuela.

Alicia Coca, Gabriela Carrillo, Luzma Ortiz, Crissy Guerrero, Satya Jnani Chavez

The complete cast includes: Diana Burbano (“Imagine;” “The Long Road Today”) as Amalia Morales/Doña Lola, Alicia Coca (“Pippin;” “Heathers The Musical”) as Isabel Campos, Gabriela Carrillo (“The Prince of Egypt;” “Chess”) as Lucha Morales, Sol Castillo (“A Christmas Carol;” “The Night Fairy”) as Mino Avila/Padre Flores, Satya Jnani Chavez (“Life on Paper;” “Othello”) as Hortensia “Boli” Perez, Mauricio Mendoza (“Destiny of Desire;” “La Posada Mágica”) as Federico Morales, Crissy Guerrero as Soyla Reyna/Sister Manuela, Luzma Ortiz (“Dora the Explorer Live!” –Nat’l Tour; “In the Heights”) as Gabby Orozco, and Eduardo Enrikez as Mateo Campos/René/Rubén/Los Muchachos.

Since this is a comedy, all the problems are ultimately resolved, with a touch of surrealism as facilitator. It’s all about life and death (the story becomes poignant and heart-rending at times), hubris and forgiveness, miscommunication and reconciliation. And, of course, memory. Family and love are at the core of the story, but tradition — and breaking it — are also crucial.

Ultimately, what we come away with, after moments of laughter and even tears, is a warm feeling of familia and a greater appreciation of Mexican American pride, culture, music — and powerful, resilient Chicanas.

Scenic Design is by Efren Delgadillo Jr., and Costume Design is by Kish Finnegan. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz is the Lighting Designer, and Paul James Prendergast is Sound Designer. Accolades to the Music Director — Cynthia Reifler Flores — and the show is Stage Managed by Sophia Sanchez. Lead Puppet Builder is Sean T. Cawelti, and Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSa. 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 in conjunction with Mission San Juan Capistrano as part of their Outside SCR summer series, and runs through July 31st. 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

Photo Credits: Jenny Graham


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