AMERICAN MARIACHI, currently playing at the Old Globe, is a brightly engaging and sentimental play that tugs at your heartstrings. It manages to be both intensely personal and universal as it explores the power of music and memory, family, and circumventing traditional norms through humor and music.
Set in the mid 1970’s we find Lucha (Jennifer Paredes) at home with her mother Amalia (a sweet and refined Doreen Montalvo). Lucha has dreams of going to nursing school, but she has to stay home when her father Federico (a gruff Bobby Plasencia) is away at work to take care of her mother. Amalia is suffering from ever worsening dementia and is no longer able to safely be by herself while Federeico works in a restaurant and moonlights as a mariachi. His schedule puts ever increasing pressure on the already stressed Lucha.
When Lucha’s cousin Boli (the fiery and very funny Heather Velazquez) comes over and they play a mariachi record Amalia seems to light up and be more present instead of fading into her memory. When Federico blows up at the sound of the song and the record breaks Amalia is heartbroken. Lucha is inspired to start her own maricahi group to help her mother and put a female stamp on the all-male tradition of mariachi.
The group quickly finds its additional members- the shy but sweet singer Isabel (Amanda Robles), the adorably awkward and non-Spanish speaking Gabby (Natalie Camunas), and the sassy salon owner Soyla (Crissy Guerrero).
Since mariachi is traditionally passed down from father to son, all are eager to join but none of them can actually play any of the necessary instruments. They need someone who can teach them about all of the components — trumpet, guitar, violin, the petite vihuela and the very large guitarrón. Lucha turns to an estranged family friend Mino (Rodney Lizcano) a mariachi himself who reluctantly decides helping them is worth the potential wrath of Lucha’s father.
Paredes is excellent as the determined and unstoppable Lucha; she carries the emotional arc of the play with a wonderful energy and sense of compassion. Velazquez as her cousin Boli is a wonderfully comic foil to Lucha’s more sentimental outlook. They are supported by the rest of their first- rate cast, including multiple roles played by Montalvo making an additional appearance as the funny Doña Lola, and Luis Quintero as multiple memorable characters.
The entire cast is rounded out by the shows own mariachi band that provides first rate music throughout the performance. Erick Jimenez on vihuela, Ruben Marin on guitarrón, Martin Padilla and Tom Tinoco on violin, and Fernando Guadalupe Zárate Hernandez on trumpet provide an outstanding music for the audience to enjoy.
Ultimately, the real star of the 90 minute play is the tradition and the music of the mariachi. It makes this bilingual cast, and the Spanish and English woven throughout the play, the definition of American. There is no outsider character that serves as a gateway character for the audience, to explain what is happening or why. Like the tradition of mariachi, this play explores the multiple textures of life; love, family, and the ability for forgiveness, and navigating culture through generations. That this family speaks Spanish or comes from a different culture makes them no less American than any other family who has these struggles.
In a town like San Diego where this music can be ubiquitous as background music in the more touristy areas, it’s nice to see both the music and the culture unapologetically brought to the forefront of the discussion.
Directed by James Vásquez, he keeps the play’s energy high while still allowing it to pack an emotional punch. The characters are swiftly but distinctly drawn and the conflicts seem touchingly realistic. Music direction by Cynthia Reifler Flores keeps the music sparkling and on point as this play unfolds inform of a beautiful mural of a female mariachi and set designed by Regina Garcia.
By the end of the performance, those in the theatre were visibly emotional; men and women of all ages sniffling and wiping their eyes. This beautiful and poignant play is accessible to everyone, no matter if you were familiar with mariachi prior to the show or not. Because family, love, and forgiveness are all parts of a universal story; and the music this play celebrates highlights those feelings beautifully.
AMERICAN MARIACHI is playing at the Old Globe Theatre through April 29th. For tickets and show time information go to www.theoldglobe.org