“Women can’t play mariachi” was obviously inaccurate even before the emergence everywhere of empowered females. To my gringo ears, the lush romanticism of the passionate Latino tradition flows as sweetly and refreshes as vigorously whatever the gender.
But skirts among the charro trousers and lipstick around the cordial smiles are relatively new to the rigid classical style of mariachi, despite scholarship that has discovered all-female bands in the 1940s and singers 1903. Woman performers didn’t join the mariachi mainstream until the 1970s.
That’s when American Mariachi, a new play by Jose Cruz Gonzalez now at the Old Globe Theatre, is set. The play itself is an artless tale of family misunderstanding made right by music. But the music is to swoon for.
Mom is pining away on the edge of dementia, suffering from what opera fans might recognize as the deadly “soprano’s disease.” Dad can’t do enough for her but he’s often gone on tour with his mariachi band and the sweet daughter is left, her young life on hold, to tend Mom.
Daughter and her cousin/best friend are poking around the pile of records (it’s the ‘70s, remember) one day when they find a label they don’t recognize. It’s a couple of guys singing a ballad and it has an instant effect on Mom, who’s suddenly back among the living and singing along. But Dad returns suddenly and bursts into a rage, destroying the record, silencing Mom and plunging the household back into gloom.
So, the girls seek explanation from a former family friend – another musician and a dealer in instruments – who hasn’t been welcome for many a year. He has the whole story, essentially a trivial misunderstanding among youthful pals which, soaked in machismo and Latino pride, metastasized into something lasting and ugly.
The solution? Why, form a band of their own and play the song for Mom, inviting her return, hopefully to reality and happiness. Only problem: They’re not musicians. But persistence will pay off. They persuade the old family friend to be their teacher, they recruit three other women (who also don’t play) and, through some Latino variation of Professor Harold Hill’s “think system” (from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man), they prevail.
The five actresses in the Globe show all were new to their instruments when cast, a program note informs us, but probably not quite as raw as, for instance, Amanda Robles seems when she’s not quite sure which end of her new trumpet to blow into. Ultimately, with a lot of concentration, they sound tolerable. It doesn’t hurt either that the men of the ensemble all seem to play quite well and that a quintet of genuine mariachis also are never far away. (Congrats to Cynthia Reifler Flores, the music director.)
So the best plan, perhaps, is to forget about the melodrama and pay attention to the delicious flavor of the music and the life it celebrates. Savor the mix of tempos and phrasing that Rodney Lizcano, as the friend and mentor, so clearly and succinctly describes. Watch the stern discipline of the musicians brace up the breezy stimulation of a surprisingly rich repertoire. Contemplate the almost military precision and pride of the band costumes. And celebrate the way that a popular art, treated with respect, so admirably represents the proud culture of the people who love it.
There are staging challenges – some ghosts float past, some violence is threatened, some locales switch abruptly – but director James Vasquez successfully navigates them all. Regina Garcia’s set features a dandy mural, Meghan Anderson Doyle’s costumes are inevitably helpful and Paul Miller finds a lighting mix that is distinctive without being obtrusive.
The author overindulges in the feminist elements of the little tale, which are far less interesting than the music and lifestyle parts. The women represent a catalogue of “Me Too” grievances: One is bullied by a father, one by a husband, another by an employer. One is dismissed as a party girl, another as a ditz. And all these genuine problems are skated past with probably too much ease. If they’re introduced, they need to be more addressed.
Still, the framework serves the need and the company, each and every one, sells the show with enthusiasm and delightful generosity.
(Continues in the Old Globe Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 29, 2018.)