Set in the 1970s, a time when women’s lib became an actuality, mariachi music was the sole domain of men. For women to play and sing the music was an abomination. Lucha (Gabriela Carrillo), an ambitious college student on the cusp of graduation, is burdened with the home care of her mother, Amalia (Diana Burbano), who is in the progressive stages of dementia. Amalia is unresponsive to the present, but sometimes has a few moments of lucidity, especially when music is involved. Lucha’s father, Federico (Mauricio Mendoza) is a cook by day and a mariachi tenor at night. Federico is overly solicitous towards his wife, and overly strict with his daughter. Thereby hangs a tale, and revelations come in measured degrees
When Lucha and her cousin, Hortensia (Satya Jnani Chavez), or Boli, as she prefers to be called, find a small recording-booth vinyl disc and play it, Amalia comes out of her dementia prison. Federico discovers the scene and, in an inexplicable outrage, destroys the record. Lucha is determined to find a copy, or make another version of the song that lifted Lucha out of the darkness. Not to give too much away, Lucha and Boli, by incremental steps decide to become mariachis themselves in the face of masculine disapproval. They recruit other women to join them—the shy-but-amazing choir singer, Isabel (Alicia Coca), who is dominated by her husband, Mateo (Andrew Joseph Perez); self-conscious Gabby (Luzma Ortiz), a Christian rock bass player; and the older, liberated, vivacious Soyla (Marlene Montes), a self-employed hair stylist. They are reluctantly helped in their endeavor by Mino (Sol Castillo), the estranged friend of Federico, who is a mariachi and music-store owner.
American Mariachi is impeccably directed by Christopher Acebo and expansively mounted by the creative staff of Efren Delgadillo, Jr., scenic design; Kish Finnegan, costume design; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, lighting design; Rebecca Kessin, sound design; Cynthia Reifler Flores, music director; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA casting. Moira Gleason manages the stage with smooth efficiency.
The action is supported throughout by the magnificent playing of the onstage mariachis—Trumpet, Esteban Montoya Dagnino; Violin/Tía Carmen, Sayra Michelle Haro; Guitarrón, Antonio A. Pró; Vihuela, Ali Pizarro; and Violin, Adam Ramirez.
The moment the mariachi music started up in American Mariachi, my entire being was filled with strong emotion. As the action of the play progressed, I was often giddy with laughter, and as the show surged to a finish, my eyes welled up with tears of joy as I reached in my suit pocket to daub my snuffling nose. Why did this Minnesota-born Scandinavian American have such a powerful reaction? I can only surmise that it is rooted in my experience back in 2002 and 2007 when I had the joy of being embraced by the people of El Teatro Campesino when I was a cast member of the revival of Luis Valdez’ brilliant play, Zoot Suit, in which I played the role of defense attorney George Shearer in nearly two hundred performances at the company’s playhouse in San Juan Bautista. The love and affection I experienced then flooded back to me as I experienced American Mariachi.
American Mariachi is an absolute joy. Take the time; make a day of it. Head down to South Coast Rep before it is gone.
American Mariachi runs through October 5 on the Segerstrom Stage of South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa.