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On Theater: A stirring ‘American Mariachi’ at South Coast Repertory

American Mariachi
Alicia Coca, Gabriela Carrillo, Luzma Ortiz, Marlene Montes and Satya Jnani Chavez in South Coast Repertory’s 201​9 ​production of ​"American Mariachi” by ​José Cruz González, which runs through Oct. 5.
(Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)

Few new theatrical offerings have served up such a banquet of emotional ingredients as “American Mariachi” — a bountiful exercise mixing comedy, drama, cultural conflict, familial chaos and, of course, music — the season opener at South Coast Repertory.

Playwright José Cruz González has fashioned all of these elements into an encompassing story of life in, as the program states, “a Chicano community somewhere in the United States.” The time is the 1970s, when women were beginning to assert themselves in all areas of society.

Lucha Morales (Gabriela Carrillo) is a teenage girl whose beloved mother (an engaging Diana Burbano) is slipping away into early dementia. One thing brings her back, temporarily, to normal — the sound of a love song played by her husband’s mariachi band long ago.

American Mariachi
​Diana Burbano and Mauricio Mendoza play wife and husband in in South Coast Repertory’s 201​9 ​production of "​American Mariachi,” which runs through Oct. 5.
(Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)
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Thus, Lucha becomes determined to recreate that sound with the help of four other ladies, none of whom is musically adept — against her father’s wishes. Mariachi music, he declares, is only meant to be played by señores. No señoras or señoritas need apply.

Carrillo reflects admiration and dedication in her seemingly impossible quest, aided by her comical cousin Hortensia (Satya Jnani Chavez), social outsider Gabby (Luzma Ortiz), tenuous trumpeter Isabel (Alicia Coca) and frisky beautician Soyla (Marlene Montes).

The strongest performance is delivered by Mauricio Mendoza as Lucha’s stern but loving father, a towering figure among the fledgling musicians. Sol Castillo also has some fine moments as the music store owner who assists the mariachi ladies and has an emotional stake in the project.

American Mariachi
Mauricio Mendoza, Gabriela Carrillo and Andrew Joseph Perez in “American Mariachi,” which runs at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through Oct. 5.
(Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)

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The specter of death looms high above the stage in the form of a skeletal mariachi trumpeter, an eerie harbinger of foreboding and a contrast to the occasional comic activities below.

The setting, a living room that pushes forward or backward from a colorfully tiled courtyard, has been meticulously designed by Efren Delgadillo Jr. Kish Finnegan’s costumes are striking, especially in the final segment.

A working knowledge of Spanish certainly would increase enjoyment — punch lines in that language draw hearty laughter from some sections of the audience — but even gringos like yours truly may appreciate the production’s sterling dramatic and comic quality. It’s a captivating season opener at South Coast Repertory.

IF YOU GO
What: “American Mariachi”

Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Tuesdays through Sundays at varying curtain times until Oct. 5

Cost: Start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555; scr.org

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