Somewhere Over the Border, a new musical by Brian Quijada, now being presented by Teatro Vista at Windy City Playhouse, is not exactly oblique in its homage to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. Based on the true story of Quijada’s mother Reina and her difficult journey to the US during the 1970s war in El Salvador, here written to reflect the movie’s central journey, the play is a wonderful reminder of why we refer to immigrants as Dreamers, and it arrives in a moment in which far too many of us have forgotten the reason for that dream…if we ever knew it.
I’ve never seen the Windy City Playhouse space so empty. Yvonne Miranda’s simple raised circular stage (with a couple of small ancillary spaces attached) makes the room that has housed a…well, an entire house, among other things…feel huge and cavernous. And that is probably the point: these would-be immigrants are fighting the weight of the world, from families and governments to the intense fear of the unknown that mitigates the hopeful joy with which they set off. They fend off authorities who seem to be everywhere: on foot, in cars, even in the sky, in their desperate journey to find the new life they dream of, while projections by Liviu Pasare highlight their movement, Diana Fairchild’s lighting sets the mood, and sound designer Stefanie M Senior keeps their every word crisp and clear, honoring music director Thee Ricky Harris’s efforts, despite the ambitiously commodious space she is working in.
On Miranda’s circular stage lies a constant reminder of the journey ahead: a yellow brick road. Though Quijada doesn’t reference it directly, its highly visual presence is such a huge link to the film’s iconic imagery that Reina’s journey, a search for a new home, is inextricably tied to Dorothy’s quest to find the one she has lost.
Quijada himself leads the four-piece band (situated in the center of the stage) as well as taking on the role of a narrator and various small parts in the story. His own joy at seeing his musical—and his mother’s life story—onstage in this world premiere is palpable. He has enough energy that he could probably play every part and make it work. Fortunately, however, he and talented director Denice Yvette Cerna don’t have to rely on that. The other five cast members, three of whom play multiple roles as well that echo Dorothy’s populating her dream of Oz with faces she knows, are all marvelous…and at least as enthusiastic as the playwright.
That cast is led by Gabriela Moscoso, leveraging her vibrant stage presence, powerful soprano voice, and youthful appearance to reflect our memory of Judy Garland’s innocent Dorothy. Reina is not quite so innocent—she’s a mother at seventeen—but, like Dorothy, she has an almost childlike faith in her ability to attain her dreams. From the moment she first hears about life in the US (a country, by the way, she has never even heard of), she simply knows she will go there. She is aware of the dangers of such a journey (not to mention its illegality and its expense) but she naïvely assumes that she will be able to save the money, even though her meager earnings have never even been enough to make a dent in the expenses her mother incurs running the family farm. She just assumes that, if she wants it badly enough, everything else will take care of itself.
As it happens (happened, in fact), the money miraculously takes care of itself too, in a whirlwind of events that seems designed to move her on her way, and the only thing holding her back is family: her obligations to her hard-working mother and her love for her little baby, Fernando, whom she will have to leave behind. (She isn’t so blind to reality as to think the child could survive the trip.) Making a pledge to return to get him as soon as possible, she spirits herself away on the first of several buses heading, ultimately, to a meeting with “El Gran Coyote de Tijuana,” the mysterious wizard-like figure she has been told will be able to help her (who, to no one’s surprise given the part he is playing in all this, isn’t all he’s made out to be).
Moscoso is such a captivating and appealing performer that it’s easy for the audience just to go along with all of this. Reina wants it, so we want it too. But three things keep pulling us back to the situation’s reality. First, of course, are the lengths to which Reina has to go to avoid the authorities, which underscore the danger of her arduous journey. Second, there are the people she meets along the way, who are such overt parallels for Dorothy’s traveling companions that we can constantly feel Quijada’s manipulations—he is openly reimagining his mother’s difficult journey as a kind of fantasy—and can smile and laugh at choreographer Casey Alfonso’s occasional direct mimicry of movements from the movie.
Finally, there is the central maneuver Quijada makes to alter the film’s story: he keeps returning to the small farm in Chinmico, El Salvador, and to the mother Reina left behind. As Julia, Claudia Quesada’s heart-wrenching vocals do much more than Aunty Em’s plaintive, searching cries of “Dorothy!” could ever to remind us that our decisions always affect the real world. Julia’s understandable anger—she’s been left behind without a word, had an infant dumped into her care, and lost two of her sources of income (Reina’s brother sold his cow to help fund her trip)—is at first overwhelming, but eventually is overtaken by her repeated prayers that her only daughter will be OK.
For her part,
Dorothy Reina keeps picking up companions on the road. Cruz, played by Tommy Rivera-Vega (who also plays Reina’s brother) desperately wants to be able to study in a good university but finds himself instead stuck on a farm. Silvano (Andrés Enriquez, who also plays Reina’s boss back home) is a heartbroken and lonely inn proprietor who just wants to reunite with his family (who are in Pittsburg) and find love. Leona (Amanda Raquel Martinez, who also plays the friend who first told Reina about the wonders of the USA) is painfully shy and cowardly, which has clearly impeded her dream of being a rock star and has led her to safety as a nun instead. Costume designer Sarah Albrecht has a field day here. Confused? It’s OK: this is a truly enjoyable bit played by a wonderful performer whose imitations of the Cowardly Lion are fantastic. In fact, Alfonso and Cerna find imaginitive ways of mirroring many of the iconic movements from all of these characters, and Quijada’s repeated “Ride Up the Road” is a wonderful and joyful imitation of “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
In an era of appallingly self-serving anti-immigrant fever, this play is a breath of fresh air. We watch human beings we care for struggle to achieve their dreams, and it would take someone truly callous (not to mention someone who has never given a thought to the words of Jesus Christ) to want these people punished for the sin of being born in the wrong place. Quijada more or less ignores the current “Build a Wall” crowd, which he can do because his mother’s story happened a long time ago. But his audience does not have that privilege: it is the necessary backdrop for any story about an immigrant’s journey to America. It’s worth mentioning that, once she makes it, Reina does not take a job from anyone else; rather, she creates her own through hard work, all while pining over the fact that her little boy is growing up without her. Through her struggles and effort, despite everything, she perseveres. Reina is not the embodiment of the fears of the right; she is the American Dream.
This is a musical that demands theatregoers’ support. Tickets (which begin at $15) are available from Teatro Vista for the show, which runs through June 12.