José Cruz González's “American Mariachi” at Goodman Theatre packs enough plot points and socially relevant content into 95 minutes to make a person's head spin, but the live mariachi music pulls everything together for an evening that's simultaneously joyous and sorrowful.
The play with music combines a family drama with a quest of sorts, plenty of humor and more than a dash of mystery while exploring a traditional patriarchal society, issues related to aging and care-giving and the struggle to find a balance between duty and desire. The feminist message is clear and, with one exception, the men come off pretty badly.
Goodman's co-production with the Dallas Theater Center had its final dress rehearsal there in March 2020 before being shut down by the pandemic, and the Midwest premiere is part of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance's annual “Destinos” festival. Henry Godinez directs the multi-talented cast, but for those of us who, like me, are not familiar with Mexican-American culture, the theatrical conventions may be confusing. The Spanish in the script is explained indirectly, for the most part, but I really wish there had been super titles to translate the song lyrics.
Set in the 1970s in a Chicano neighborhood somewhere in the United States, the story revolves around the Morales family. Father Federico (Ricardo Gutiérrez) works as a cook by day and a professional mariachi at night, taking whatever gigs he can get. His wife Amalia (Gigi Cervantes) is sinking into early-onset dementia and has to be continually cared for so she doesn't do things like setting herself on fire while trying to cook. That task falls to their daughter, twenty-something Lucha (Tiffany Solano) and interferes with her nursing school plans.
Lucha has begun to notice that her mother comes out of her shell while listening to old recordings. When she and her cousin and best friend, Boli (Lucy Godinez), accidentally find an old 45 labeled “A. M.,” it elicits a strong response from Amalia. Unfortunately, it also gets a reaction from Federico, who flies into a rage and breaks the record trying to take it from Lucha, though he won't tell her why.
After learning that the only copy of the record was privately made, Lucha decides that she has to become a mariachi and form an all-female mariachi band to be able to play the song for her mother. But mariachis are a totally male domain in the 1970s, handed down from father to son, so her aspiration elicits nothing but negative reactions and scorn. Except from Boli, a firecracker women's libber of the era, who agrees to help.
The two young women's quest to put together a band takes them to a variety of churches and other places, with humorous encounters—directed and acted very broadly—along the way. Amid the expected opposition, they eventually recruit Isabel (Molly Hernández), who has a gorgeous soprano but is pregnant and has to deceive her disapproving husband because they live with his parents who have rules; Gabby (Amanda Raquel Martinez), who plays bass but can neither sing nor speak Spanish very well, and Soyla (Gloria Vivica Benavides), the forthright liberated owner of a hair salon who says she plays a mean kazoo and surprises everyone with her fine voice.
The problem is that the women don't have any instruments, wouldn't know how to play them if they did and really don't know anything about mariachi music except that they grew up with it and love it. For help, Boli urges Lucha to turn to her godfather, Mino (Bobby Plasencia). Lucha hesitates because her father and Mino, once compadres, have been estranged for years, but she eventually gives in.
Mino initially rejects the request, with the mariachi-is-for-men-only argument among others, but finally comes around because the goal is to sing for Amalia. He insists, however, that the women have to become as good, or even better, than male mariachis.
As part of facilitating this, Mino gives them — and us — a little lecture on mariachis, particularly the requisite instruments and the song genres, among them the waltz, the polka and the romantic bolero.
The transformation of the group into a real mariachi band is a highlight of the evening, especially considering that the actors had to learn to play their instruments as well as sing the traditional songs.
Accompanying them and playing the many other mariachi standards are members of the terrific Sones de Mexico Ensemble — Juan Díes (guitarrón), Victor Pichardo (music director, violin), Zacbé Pichardo (vihuela, Mexican harp), Rodolfo “Rudy” Pinón (trumpet) and guest Giovanni García (trumpet).
Ironically, these musicians are all men. The exception is violinist Eréndira Izguerra, founder of Chicago's first all-female mariachi, Mariachi Sirenas. She portrays Tía Carmen, the calavera (“skull” in Spanish; like a ghost) who opens the show with a traditional “grito” (yell), then is joined by the mariachi for “Son de la Negra.” We see Amalia caught up in this memory, and one of the mysteries that unfolds concerns Amalia's love for her dead aunt Carmen, a mariachi she wanted to emulate and whose broken violin she still has.
How and why that violin got broken is part of the other ultimately solved mystery, as is the source of the “A.M.” recording, the cause of the falling out between Federico and Mino and the reason Federico basically shut out his wife, though he's stayed with her during her illness. His stern behavior toward Lucha figures in this too, making him pretty much of a jerk right up to a forgiveness-filled finale suffused with beautiful rendition of “Mi Rosa Como Ninguna” and more music.
While Solano's Lucha and the actors playing her parents are strong, and Plascencia's Mino provides a winning low-key contrast, Godinez as Boli and Benavides as Soyla steal whatever scenes they're in.
Linda Buchanan's multilevel set, with alcoves for the mariachi, morphs into some locations better than others. Danielle Nieves' costume design is a delight, capturing both the feel of the 1970s and the aura of the mariachi to a T. Maria-Christina Fusté's lighting and Ray Nardalli's sound design help distinguish the memory scenes and the other shifts in tone.
In truth, “American Mariachi” could have a less predictable plot, the dialogue could be stronger and the theme of female empowerment could be treated with more subtlety, but I found its inclusiveness well-suited to the times. and the lively mariachis irresistible.