Title: American Mariachi. Playwright: Jose Cruz Gonzalez
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $25-$98; GoodmanTheatre.org . Runs through: Oct. 24
From the first moment, when a shrill "grito" proclaims the commencement of a Mariachi bolero, followed by a curtain of string lights and stucco townhouse windows illuminated to reveal the Sones de Mexico musicians hard at work, we cannot resist its invitation to vamos con brio. To be sure, our journey's route is a familiar one, recalling, among other sources, The Seven Samurai, The Full Monty and hundreds of sports movies: A crisis spurs a group of social misfits to end their torpor by taking action. As we watch them prepare for the Big Showdown, we grow to know them and their backstories, leading us to cheer their efforts.
Our hero this time is young Lucha Moralas, forced to drop out of nursing school in order to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. One day, Lucha and her cousin Boli are listening to music (on 45 rpm vinyl, as this is 1970) when an unidentified mariachi-band song suddenly stirs the memory of the melancholy matriarch, prompting the duo to initiate a plan to recreate the melody thus capable of such miraculous resurrective powers. (Their progress is sometimes evidenced in the course of a single instrumental phrase, so listen up, okay?)
In the 1970s, mariachi music was an exclusively male province, performed in clubs that banned women. Despite the objections of fathers, husbands, pastors and other gainsayers, however, the feisty chicas persevere, gradually recruiting a consortium of likewise dissimilar mariacherasmeek Isabel, sunny Gabby and hard-boiled Soyla, along with a sympathetic guitar-maker (himself, a former mariachi)all of whom come to embrace the spirit of the music arising with the promise of freedom out of the centuries-old ashes of the Conquistadors.
The path to success is never easy, of course. Before harmony can be achieved, questions must be answered, confessions must be secured, sinners must repent and ghosts call their loved ones to join them. It's no coincidence that the stage orchestra includes a Calaca Katrina in full day-of-the-dead regalia.
Jose Cruz Gonzales' deceptively simple story is layered deep with hidden metaphor, even down to the characters' names ("Lucha" means "fighter"), but the ensemble selected by director Henry Godinez for this joint Dallas Theatre Center/Goodman Theatre production deftly navigates every twist and turn in a script rich with cultural history and brilliant spectacle. So engaging are Tiffany Solano's Lucha and Lucy Godinez' Boliflanked by Molly Hernandez, Amanda Raquel Martinez and Gloria Vivica Benavides as the Mariachi Coronelas, with Ricardo Gutierrez, Bobby Placencia and Christopher Llewyn Ramirez appearing as an assortment of skeptical malesthat any potential for difficulties engendered by language barriers is banished instantaneously. Music, after all, is a universal language, and those whose previous exposure to mariachi is restricted to the strolling variety found in restaurants crooning "Cielita Lindo" will find themselves departing with a whole new vocabulary to ponder.