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Real emotion, jaunty music

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Tears, laughter and mariachi music fill the stage and the lives of the characters in Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “American Mariachi.”

James Vasquez directs this joint production with Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, just arrived from its Denver run and plays through April 29 at The Old Globe.

(l to r) Jennifer Paredes and Doreen Montalvo (Photo by Jim Cox)

Local favorite Jennifer Paredes plays Lucha, who dreams of becoming a nurse, but at the moment is the designated caregiver for mother Amalia (Doreen Montalvos), a victim of early-onset dementia.

Lucha, like her mother, loves to sing. In fact, only music — one song in particular — seems to bring Amalia out of the dementia-induced fog into which she sinks more deeply every day.

When Lucha’s cousin and best friend Hortensia (Heather Velazquez) — who is also known as Boli — drags in one day, announcing that she has just been fired, an idea occurs to Lucha: Why don’t they start a women’s mariachi group?

(l to r) Amanda Robles, Jennifer Paredes, Natalie Camunas, Crissy Guerrero and Heather Velazquez (Photo by Jim Cox)

Loony, no? After all, this is the mid-1970s and women don’t do mariachi. And since it’s mostly performed in bars, women aren’t even allowed to hear most of the mariachi.

Lucha and Boli start recruiting, despite the opposition of Lucha’s father Federico (Bobby Plasencia), who needs her to care for Amalia while he is at work. The scenes where they find new recruits at churches — one Catholic and one fundamentalist — are a hoot. Isabel (Amanda Robles) is a quiet little girl who sings really loud. Unfortunately, her husband Mateo (Luis Quintero) is just as loud in his disapproval. (Quintero also plays the group’s gay tailor Rene to the hilt.)

Gabby (Natalie Camunas) is the painfully shy one, but she introduces the girls to hairstylist Soyla (Crissy Guerrero), a pistol of a sexpot (and a sexpot with a pistol) who doesn’t worry about getting permission from anyone, boasting “I only have lovers and I don’t have to ask them [expletive].”

(l to r) Jennifer Paredes, Rodney Lizcano and Heather Velazquez (Photo by Jim Cox)

“American Mariachi” is a family story, not an immigrant saga. You won’t hear about border crossings, gangs, prison sentences or drug use. Theatergoers are dropped into an American Latino family as it is — complete with untranslated, bilingual conversation and a father, Federico, who plays with a mariachi band when he’s not at work, cooking for others.

When it comes to finding instruments, Lucha turns to Mino (Rodney Lizcano), a kindly carpenter who repairs instruments in his garage. Mino has never quite gotten over a rift between him and his old buddy Federico.

“American Mariachi,” written by Jose Gonzalez and directed by James Vasquez, runs through April 29 (Photo by Jim Cox)

“American Mariachi” also boasts a real mariachi band, which plays often and well.

Regina Garcia’s set — a courtyard brick wall with lots of bright pink graffiti, art, flowers, a mariachi, a woman’s face and cacti — sets the tone.

Meghan Anderson Doyle’s costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting and Ken Travis’ sound design are fine as well.

If you’re looking for a great plot, “American Mariachi” may be a bit too paint-by-numbers to fill the bill.

But the emotions are real, the music jaunty and the cast winning, and it’s an engaging portrait of an American Latino family.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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