Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of The Wolves
Valdovinos was a "Dreamer"a person who came to the U.S. as a minor and has lived in the country without official documentation. Valdovinos' story, and the issues faced by other Dreamers and immigrants, is the basis for ¡Americano!, the new musical making its world premiere at The Phoenix Theatre Company. With intriguing characters, a talented cast, seamless direction, and energetic choreography, ¡Americano! is a fairly impressive and impactful musical. However, while the score is good, some of the lyrics are just average and there are a few moments when the show comes across a bit heavyhanded.
Tony Valdovinos' parents brought him to Arizona from Mexico when he was just two years old, so the United States is the only country he knows and the place he calls home. The plot follows Tony and shows the impact the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had on him, just like it did on so many others, when he was very young, which sparked his desire to defend his country with the dream of joining the Marines once he was old enough to enlist.
Once Tony discovers he isn't a U.S. citizen, there are feelings of betrayal and trust between himself and his parents, since they never told him the truth about his immigration status. Tony's passion to fight for what's right spurs him on to take part in local politics. With the threat of possible deportation looming over their heads, Tony and his family have to figure out how to exist in a country they feel is their home, even if it legally isn't.
Michael Barnard and Jonathan Rosenberg's book does a fairly good job creating three-dimensional characters, especially Tony, his parents, and his younger brother. There is also a nice mixture of supporting characters included, both large and small, without there being too many to bog down the story and pace, as well as some natural comic moments interspersed throughout that help to lighten up the drama. The score (music by Carrie Rodriguez and lyrics by Rodriguez, Barnard and Rosenberg) features a good balance of song styles that echo the heritage and culture of Tony and his family.
However, while the music is very good, some of the lyrics are just average, including several with rhymes that are unimaginative, obvious or forced, and others that don't sit in line with the music. There are also a few things that could be tweaked, cut, or tightened up in the book and score to make the message more impactful. These include the opening number, which could be more focused on Tony and less on all of the other supporting characters, and a few songs with messages that could be more clearly stated or replaced with just a few lines of dialogue in order to be less heavyhanded and to speed up the plot. Although dates are flashed on video screens in the second act, there are none in the first. Having some consistency would give more authenticity to the production. The last half of the show also doesn't include much about the possibility of Tony being deported due to his status. There also isn't any mention about the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which could see all Dreamers ruled illegal immigrants. The omission of those items makes the obstacles Tony faces ultimately less moving and have less of an emotional impact.
Barnard's direction keeps things moving at a fairly swift pace and he efficiently interweaves flashback moments in several scenes. He also makes great use of Robert Kovach's effective set design, which uses a turntable to swiftly change locations, of which here are many. Choreographer Sergio Mejia has created some highly effective and exuberant steps that highlight the Latino culture and characters, and tie in beautifully to the various musical styles of the score. Connie Furr's costumes are varied and work well to delineate the different characters, and Daniel Davisson's constantly changing lighting design is superb. Jonathan Ivie's excellent music direction achieves rich harmonies and solid vocals from the cast and an exceptional sound from the nine-piece band, all of which are delivered bright and clear from Dave Tempy's sound design.
As Tony, Sean Ewing creates an endearing, realistic individual who is sympathetic and passionate but also vulnerable. His bright singing voice soars on his many songs, especially the moving act one ender, "Dreamer." Joseph Cannon and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda are superb as Tony's strong and fiercely loving parents Martin and Felicita Valdovinos. Canon's deep voice and solid focus bring depth and drive to this hardworking yet stubborn man, while Carlisle-Zepeda's combination of warmth and passion creates the kind of mother anyone would want to have in their corner. From both Cannon and Carlisle-Zepeda's rich performances we clearly understand that they only have the best intentions for their sons even though they never told Tony he wasn't a U.S. citizen.
In supporting roles, Alyssa V. Gomez is good as Ceci, the woman Tony has known for most of his life and who goes off to join the Marines even though Tony can't. Edgar Lopez is charming as Tony's somewhat nerdy younger brother, and Lucas Coatney instills the show with several upbeat, comic moments as Joaquin, one of Tony's friends. Chris Eriksen is compassionate as the man who Tony, his father, and his brother work for, and Michael Scott Gomez, Shani Barrett, Justin Figueroa and Maria Amorocho provide solid support as a friend of Tony's who gets involved with a local gang, Tony's brother's girlfriend, and a council woman and man running for political office, respectively.
¡Americano! is a somewhat effective musical that shows how one man's personal journey and his emotional and legal struggles with both his family and the country he loves instill a passion that also inspires others he meets. His experiences are also how he finds his voice in the world. With some changes and improvements to the lyrics and a tightening up of a few areas I believe this musical could have a fairly rich life in regional theatres, though the creators may need to change the ending depending on how the Supreme Court rules on DACA this year.
¡Americano! runs through February 23, 2020, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Ave, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151
Book by Michael Barnard and Jonathan Rosenberg
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.