Vita Flores (played by Zahaira Curiel) is a 13-year-old from Queens, New York who doesn’t understand why her family makes such a big deal about Día de los Muertos, when all her friends at school are celebrating Halloween.
That is, until a candy skeleton on her abuelita’s ofrenda comes to life and helps her not only discover her roots, but also understand the meaning behind these rituals.
“Sugar Skull! A Día de los Muertos Musical Adventure” — directed by Elena Araoz and written by Gregory Van Acker, with musical arrangements by Sinuhe Padilla — is a production of Mexico Beyond Mariachi, a New York-based ensemble of musicians, actors, dancers, and teaching artists promoting Mexican culture in the U.S.
The organization produces “Trekking Mexico” — a showcase of folk traditions from Tenochtitlan, Veracruz, Tabasco and Guerrero — and wanted to create a show with similar forms of music and dance that also tells a story.
They started developing “Sugar Skull!” in late 2017, and in 2018, they embarked on their first nine-city tour on the East Coast. This year, they raised money on Kickstarter to support a 30-city nationwide tour from September to the end of November — with a stop at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa this weekend.
Mexico Beyond Mariachi co-founder Peter Bogdanos — a multi-percussionist who, along with Leah Keith and John Gilliland, co-produced “Sugar Skull!”— says that in the children’s theater sphere, there’s still a great need for diverse stories.
He emphasizes that Vita’s search for identity, though told through the perspective of a Mexican American teenager, is universal.
A second-generation Greek immigrant, Bogdanos began visiting Mexico in 1996 when he was married to Mexico Beyond Mariachi co-founder Reuter, who is Mexican American.
Both artists, Bogdano and Reuter often lived and performed in Mexico together, and even though their marriage ended, their commitment to Mexico Beyond Mariachi continued. Reuter is the artistic director and she plays Abuelita, and other characters, in “Sugar Skull!”
Bogdano says he personally relates to Vita’s journey to self-discovery, both as a son who was never taught the Greek language and desires to be reconnected to his mother’s culture, and a father who wants to pass Mexican and American culture onto his children.
The one-hour musical features three musicians, two dancers, and three actors, including Rafa Reyes, who plays the lead role of the candy skeleton.
“[Rafa] embodies this role in such a wonderfully delicious — pardon the pun — way,” says Bogdanos. “He’s setting the stage and wink-winking to the audience, filling them in on things Vita doesn’t know.”
Throughout the show, Vita meets characters from Mexican folklore.
“There’s also a lullaby that many Mexicans would recognize because their abuelitas would sing it to them, so it does pull at heartstrings,” says Bogdanos.
Alex Jones, Segerstrom’s Director of Education Programs who curates their Family Series, says that for some of the young audience members, this will be their first theater experience.
“Some of them think they’re going to see a movie,” he says. “So it’s great that with ‘Sugar Skull!’ there are musicians right there onstage making music. It’s storytelling done technically in a way where people can see the dancing, the singing, and how all these experiences come together.”
Segerstrom also collaborated with Santa Ana’s El Centro Cultural de México to curate a pre-show, where kids can make paper marigolds and papel picado or read Día de los Muertos-themed books.
IF YOU GO
What: “Sugar Skull! A Día De los Muertos Musical Adventure,” presented by Columbia Artists
Where: Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 1 p.m. Nov. 9 and 10
Cost: Tickets start at $20
Information: (714) 556-2787; scfta.org