Healing power of music: Family, female empowerment at the heart of Goodman's 'American Mariachi'
"American Mariachi" -- ★ ★ ★
"American Mariachi" begins auspiciously.
The pandemic-delayed collaboration between Goodman Theatre and the Dallas Theater Center starts with a solo voice echoing in the darkness. The familiar strains of mariachi music, defined by its rippling trumpet and insistent guitars, join in as the curtain parts to reveal a woman singing and dancing on a dimly lit stage beneath strands of incandescent light bulbs. That joyous, rather magical introduction makes for a promising start to José Cruz González's play-with-music about young Mexican American women living in the United States in the 1970s who defy tradition to establish an all-female mariachi band.
Director Henry Godinez's production benefits from winning performances by its actor/musicians, including members of the Chicago-based ensemble Sones de Mexico, who provide the musical accompaniment for the show presented as part of Destinos, The Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
At this stage however, "American Mariachi" doesn't quite live up to its potential, despite a host of funny, endearing characters. The problem rests with a muddled narrative that -- for all its earnest intentions -- dilutes Gonzalez's affecting examination of the healing power of music and music as a transformational force.
Rooted in family, feminism and female empowerment, "American Mariachi" centers on the efforts of cousins Lucha (Tiffany Solano) and Boli (Lucy Godinez) to form a women's mariachi band in defiance of long-held tradition, which, at the time the play is set, restricted mariachi membership to men.
Inspired by Lucha's mother, Amalia (Gigi Cervantes), whose dementia is eased by music, the duo (winsomely played by Solano and Godinez) recruit aspiring musicians Isabel (Molly Hernandez), a songbird married to a controlling husband (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez); worldly-wise beauty shop owner Soyla (Gloria Vivica Benavides); and the exuberant Gabby (Amanda Raquel Martinez). Their goal is to perform for Amalia a beloved song from her youth.
Keeping their efforts from Lucha's mariachi bandleader father Federico (Ricardo Gutierrez), the women enlist musician and craftsman Mino (Bobby Plasencia), Lucha's godfather -- whose friendship with Federico ended years earlier -- to teach them to play.
"You can't just be good enough, you have to be better" says Mino, echoing advice familiar to marginalized people everywhere.
Unfortunately, a secondary plot involving jealousy and misunderstanding; a dated stereotype used for comedic effect; and assorted telenovela-style conventions (including a family tragedy employed for sentiment's sake) clutter an otherwise compelling tale. What's more, the inclusion of all-male accompanists undermines the female agency "American Mariachi" purports to advance.
Still, the play has promise. Here's hoping it's realized.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 24. Also 2 p.m. Oct. 7, 14 and 21. No 7:30 p.m. show Oct. 24
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Nearby garages, discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park on the southeast corner of Clark and Lake streets
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masks required