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Theatre in Review: ¡Americano! (New World Stages)

Alex Paez. Photo: Maria Baranova

¡Americano! tells a true story that, however incredible, most likely happens more often than most of us would like to admit. Tony Valdovinos, a young Arizonan, inspired by the events of 9/11, tried to enlist in the Marines, only to be told that he wasn't an American citizen. It's putting it mildly to say this was news to him. When he confronted his mother, she confirmed that was undocumented and, therefore, illegal; his parents, playing for time, delayed apprising him of his status, apparently hoping for a miracle. In a second, Tony's dream of service was shattered, along with his sense of a place in the world.

It's inherently the stuff of drama and, told straightforwardly or in documentary theatre form, it might have much to add to the national conversation about our mixed-up immigration policies. But ¡Americano!'s creators have gone the populist route, leaving no musical theatre cliché unemployed. Sadly, their decision to adopt a conventional, old-fashioned approach distracts from their timely message. Even when ¡Americano! becomes moving, as it does in the second act, it does so at the expense of reality. And even sympathetic audiences may be distressed by its obvious manipulations; those merely looking for an engaging show may be turned off altogether.

The central narrative follows Tony, who works for his father, Martin, a construction foreman, waiting for his eighteenth birthday when he can visit his local recruiting office. Tony plans to enlist with his best friend Ceci, who wouldn't mind upgrading to girlfriend status, a fact that takes him a surprisingly long time to figure out. Meanwhile, his parents keep deflecting his questions about his social security number; left unanswered is the question of how Tony has a job without that all-important document.

Then comes the rude awakening at the hands of a Marine recruiter, who informs Tony of his illegal status. (As he learns, he was born in Mexico and brought here at the age of two; his younger brother, Fro, doesn't have the same problem, having been born in Arizona.) Even though one can see it coming, the effect is seismic: Tony -- having fallen into the category of young people without a country known as DREAMers -- reels from the news, the humiliated Martin shuts down his emotions, and Felicitas, Martin's wife, tries to hold the fractured family together.

If ¡Americano! focused on this wrenching dilemma, it might be a knockout, but one's attention is all too often diverted by irrelevant matters that conform to an out-of-date musical-theatre formula. Fro, and his girlfriend, Jessica, make a stale pair of second-tier comic lovers. (They're the Will Parker and Ado Annie of this effort, a pair of self-described nerds whose halting romantic progress is meant to be a source of hilarity.) There's also the swishy gay friend, Joaquin Flores -- He tells Ceci, "You're gorgeous, but the only thing I'm in love with are those shoes" -- who serves as the voice of reason, pointing Tony in the direction of political action. And Act I's activities include a big dance competition because -- well, because this is a musical.

All this fooling around is presumably meant to humanize the characters; instead, it turns them into musical comedy stereotypes. The second act offers more dramatic heft as Tony and Ceci are forced to follow dramatically different paths, with Tony, making use of his oratorial and organization skills, teaming up with Carlos Ledesma, a congressman who has made helping DREAMers a priority. But the show, which aims for uplift and inspiration, soft-peddles its message, arguing that organizing and getting out the vote are the keys to success. The book, by Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Fernanda Santos, studiously avoids the ugly facts of prejudice and xenophobia poisoning the nation's immigration debates. Watching ¡Americano!, you'd never know that the issue is demagogued daily by right-wing candidates and cable news trolls; the anxieties of the white working classes are not discussed. Despite the show's peppy, can-do message, Tony must admit, just before the finale, that he has built a career as a political consultant yet, many years later, his status is still unresolved.

Carrie Rodriguez's music has some pleasant melodies, especially the rousing opener "We Pave the Way," but her lyrics (with additions by Barnard and Rosenberg) stick to generic statements: "Ay, the pain of a mother's love/We work so hard to help you grow/Then we have to let you go." Barnard's staging, aided by choreographer Sergio Mejia, keeps things moving, but the acting is at times overemphatic, and the dancing Marines are borderline-risible. Sean Ewing is a solid, stalwart leading man as Tony and he has a lively rapport with Legna Cedillo, who gives a Ceci a lively tomboy energy. The other cast members deliver their one-dimensional characters as directed; one wishes that Alex Paez, Martin, had a number that laid out his complex emotions about his son and their legally perilous situation.

The action unfolds on a busy unit set by Robert Andrew Kovach, depicting a southwestern streetscape, which, with tiny modifications, becomes several other locations; it's a gritty, functional piece of work. Jamie Roderick's lighting and Kevin Heard's sound design are both solid contributions. Adriana Diaz's costumes suit the characters well.

As a primer on a difficult issue and a lesson in political organizing, ¡Americano! would probably make a pretty good family show, especially in this high-energy production, which is filled with likable performers. But more seasoned theatregoers, especially hard-core fans of musicals, are likely to find it wanting. And recent seasons have seen the plight of the undocumented given more sophisticated treatment in plays like Sanctuary City and 72 Miles to Go.... ¡Americano! works too hard at being entertaining; its premise is gripping enough without all sorts of unnecessary dressing up. --David Barbour

(16 May 2022)

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