By Karen Topham; photo by Liz Lauren
I hope that my Google Translate didn't let me down (I really need to learn Spanish), because it needs to be said: American Mariachi is indeed a joyful triumph for Goodman Theatre. This play, a co-production with Dallas Theater Center featuring supremely talented actors and musicians from two great theatre cities, is yet another COVID-scratched play that is finally getting its chance, and it is not to be missed. José Cruz González's play, directed by Goodman's Henry Godinez, is an often hilarious celebration of life as well as a paean to change. Set in the 1970s, its young female protagonists—influenced by the nascent Women's Lib movement—decide to form an all-female mariachi band, and in doing so they challenge a long-standing tradition that says such bands should be limited to males. A not insignificant amount of the action actually takes place within the Alzheimers-scrambled mind of the family matriarch, Amalia (Gigi Cervantes), as she relives the freeing joy of mariachi performances in her past by her husband Federico's (Ricardo Gutiérrez) band and her long-deceased Tia Carmen (Eréndira Izguerra), a woman who defied tradition and played mariachi back in the day. These memory segments allow us access to the mind of a character who otherwise would have been inscrutable as she spends most of the play sitting in a chair in her family home, and they enrich our understanding both of her character and the broken love life she has with her husband. Not to mention the way they allow us to hear a lot of the music that plays in her mind. This play has plenty of vibrant mariachi music provided by excellent musicians. If you're already a fan of mariachi, you will absolutely love it; if not, you may well find that this play opens your mind to the beauty of that style of music, especially when Federico's former best friend Mino (Bobby Plasencia) explains what it is all about to the newly-formed band led by Lucha (Tiffany Solano), the daughter of Federico and Amalia, and her outspoken cousin Boli—don't call her Hortensia—(Lucy Godínez). Lucha's drive to establish this band, even though neither she nor most of her recruits can play any instruments, is essentially a farewell present to her mother, who is fading fast. There is one specific song that Lucha finds on an old 45 that, when she plays it, causes the otherwise silent Amalia to start singing along...until Federico, for reasons he refuses to explain, demands that Lucha stop playing it. It's too late, though: she has seen her mother lighten—and liven—up while hearing that music, and she desperately wants to see that again, to give that to the woman she calls Ama. Behind her father's back, as she knows he will never approve, she and Boli go from church to church to church looking for singers, and they eventually find Isabel (Molly Hernández), Soyla (Gloria Vivica Benavides), and Gabby (the outrageously funny Amanda Raquel Martinez) and cajole Mino into helping them learn to play and sing mariachi. (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez also shines in brief dual roles as Isabel's domineering husband and the man they find to create costumes for the band.) This is a show full of joy and heart, a celebration of mariachi music, the joys and pain of family, and the often difficult journeys involved in any era of change. Music Director Victor Pichardo and the wonderful musicians who comprise Federico's band enliven Linda Buchanan's set every time they start playing, and Maria-Cristina Fusté's lighting is lovely, especially when it helps to take us into Amalia's mind. Danielle Nieves' costumes are nothing short of spectacular, as well. American Mariachi is, simply put, the best production thus far in this theatrical revival. It lasts 1:40 with no intermission, and you can get tickets at Goodman Theatre's website.