Curtain Critic: Music and memory march hand-in-hand with ATC’s “American Mariachi”

A scene from the play American Mariachi, directed by José Cruz Gonzáles. (Courtesy of Tim Fuller/Arizona Theater Company)

It’s the 1970’s. The only thing bigger than the hair and pants of cousins Lucha and Boli is their dream to create an all-female mariachi band―and their determination to blow away naysayers with their fantastic música. The only problem? Neither of them can play an instrument!

Light-hearted and energetic, yet surprisingly soulful, “American Mariachi” is a vibrant celebration of mariachi that’s sure to thrill fans and teach those who are new to the genre its beauty and complexity.

Mariachi, typically played with violins, guitars and trumpets, developed as a mixture of European styles, indigenous tribal music, and African musical traditions.

Just as mariachi is a cultural blend, so too are many of the lines.

Common Spanish expressions pepper the dialogue to “highlight the reality of living bilingual, that is, fluently speaking two languages at the same time,” according to the play guide. Audiences who don’t speak Spanish may be a little lost at times and may miss jokes, but the play guide has a glossary for translations.

Speaking of jokes, “American Mariachi” provides plentiful laughs, often from Boli (Satya Jnani Chavez), who delivers lines with such enthusiasm and charm that she often has the whole theater laughing.

Although she’s a little rough around the edges, Chavez’s Boli has the voice of an angel, which joins beautifully with her fellow band members, including cousin Lucha (Christen Gee Celaya), who is inspired to start the band by her mother.

Lucha lives with her mother Amalia (played with tender subtlety by Diana Burbano), who has Alzheimer’s disease. Struggling under a monotonous life, heavy schoolwork and caring for her mother, Lucha is overjoyed when an old mariachi record brings light into her mother’s eyes and makes her stand up and sing.

Yet when the old record is broken, Lucha decides to recreate the song for her mother. She and Boli embark on a hilarious journey to find new band members, which leads them to all walks of life and a colorful, compelling cast of characters.

Technically, “American Mariachi” is as flawless as a well-composed song. It has fluid, non-intrusive scenic designs by Efren Delgadillo Jr., gorgeous costumes by designer Kish Finnegan, and perfect lightning by Carolina Ortiz Herrera.

Music director Cynthia Reifler Flores balances many of the music numbers and keeps the sounds flowing not only smoothly, but beautifully. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “American Mariachis” is meeting the many different personalities.

One of the funniest characters is Gabby (Osiris Cuen), a nasally guitarrón player whose Spanish accent is as atrocious as her big, fluffy bangs. Her physical comedy is hilarious, whether she’s shrinking into the floor in shame over her lack of friends or stumbling around in high heels.

Alicia Coca infuses a gorgeous singing voice into overworked wife Isabel, whose only release from an overbearing household is singing in a church choir, where she hits high notes so smooth they have the whole audience cheering.

Another gem is Marlene Montes as Soyla, the stylish, bombastic hairdresser who joins the band because “Why not?” She’s hilarious, independent and full of sisterly advice, which matures from light-hearted and silly to tear-jerking and soulful when she advises Isabel about her splintering love life.

Although Soyla doesn’t get much stage time, she shines enough to leave a mark as bright as her crimson suits.

Director Christopher Acebo keeps the show moving so quickly it never misses a beat. Heartwarming, hilarious, and technically stunning, “American Mariachi” is a triumph.

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