What do you know about mariachi music? If you’re like me, not a lot. Up to now, it’s been the background music while consuming margaritas, chips and queso. Not anymore.
Set in a U.S. Latino community in the 1970s, American Mariachi addresses ethnicity, gender roles, aging, family, friendships, betrayal, hopes-and-dreams® and, of course, music. If that seems like a lot to discuss in 90 minutes, it is.
Lucha (Jennifer Paredes) lives with her ailing mother Amalia (Doreen Montalvo) and her hard-working, mariachi father Federico (Bobby Plasencia). She is often joined by her cousin and good friend Boli (Heather Velazquez).
Lucha wants to go to school, but her mother’s condition, a form of early-onset dementia, and her father’s stubbornness, hold her back. But after she finds and plays a mariachi record that visibly moves her mostly catatonic mother, she and Boli decide to form an all-female mariachi band. Nobody thinks this is a good idea – even some of the women who join the band – but the group finds unforeseen support from Mino (Rodney Lizcano) a former buddy of Lucha’s father.
There are lots of stories here – about the record, about Mino and Federico, about the women joining the band – and some of them work better than others. At times, Lucha’s and her bandmates’ enthusiasm is a little too Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The performances by Plascencia and Lizcano offer a world-weary counterpoint to their youthful glee.
The glue that keeps this show together is the music. A roving band (Tom Tinoco, Fernando Guadalupe Zarate Hernandez, Bobby Plasencia, Erick Jiminez, Martin Padilla and Ruben Marin) wanders in and out – between scenes, during scenes. The set is beautifully claustrophobic, evoking a Latino anytown with windows, balconies and relentless brick. The Sharks and Jets could come dancing around the corner at any moment.
There’s a lot I didn’t like about this show – the well-worn clichés and predictable tragedies. Yet, the music makes it work. It’s personally befuddling. All the elements that didn’t light me up, somehow created a platform to provide a more visceral understanding of mariachi. In the closing numbers, I felt the sadness. And if that’s not effective theater, I don’t know what is.