The Phoenix Theatre Company celebrates its 100th-anniversary season this year, smartly choosing a homegrown musical production with a most timely theme as the celebration’s centerpiece. A highly-collaborative piece, ¡Americano! is based on the true story of Arizona “Dreamer” Antonio Valdovinos, a graduate of Camelback High School in Phoenix. On his 18th birthday, Antonio walked into a Marine Corps recruiting station to enlist, only to find out that he was an undocumented immigrant. That jarring revelation propelled Antonio into the center of the immigration controversy that, despite the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), continues to this day.
First impressions: The venue — which is the Mainstage Theatre — is a 378-seat space with what looks and sounds like a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system. The intimacy of the theatre is further enhanced by the strategic placement of the orchestra, above and behind the audience in a sort of balcony. A stroll around the empty auditorium would confirm that every seat is a good seat. The stage is well-proportioned for most modern theatrical productions and, as evidenced by this show, the production design team makes good use of the available space.
The main set, the bones of which barely change throughout the two act performance, is a three-dimensional panorama of interior and exterior set pieces interwoven to accommodate and complement the action and choreography that spans the several years of the story. A revolving stage sits at the center of all of this, though expertly camouflaged into non-distraction by the excellent set dressing. A combination of theatrical and practical lighting elements enhance both the mood and depth of the set, which consisted of fabrications of elements of wood, shingle, cinderblock and metalwork.
Anyone who has ever been in downtown Phoenix should be quite familiar with the juxtaposition of construction materials, nearly indestructible in the changeless Arizona desert environment. Aptly, the play opens up with an ensemble of a dozen singing, dancing construction workers with sledgehammers and pneumatic drills, who are clearing the debris of one Phoenix relic, intending to construct (no doubt) a new highrise in its place.
Our main character, “Tony” (Sean Ewing), is in fact the show’s embodiment of Antonio Valdovinos, the Dreamer whose story is about to unfold. Tony bristles with pride at the thought of finally turning 18 and joining the U.S. Marine Corps. His best friend, Ceci (Alyssa V. Gomez), shares his dream of serving in the military. Early in the first act, we are treated to a flashback of Tony and Ceci as children, clearly on their way to being forever friends. This also provides one of the first of many highlights of Americano!: duets sung by Tony and Ceci’s younger and older selves.
Not to be outdone is Tony’s doting mother, Felicitas (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), who wrestles with the chore of raising three children — those being her two sons and her husband. Her ululating wails literally set dogs howling back in reply. Tony’s father, Martin (Joseph Cannon), is a stern taskmaster with Old World customs and expectations. We learn of his painful decision to migrate to the U.S. with his wife and son, and his acclimation to life as a “migrant in process”, all the while neglecting to tell either Tony or his younger brother, Fro (Edgar Lopez), who is fortunate to have been born in the U.S. shortly after their arrival.
While ¡Americano! (understandably) roots for its story’s hero, it does not ignore the broader context of immigration from a cultural and economic perspective. There are no real “bad guys” in ¡Americano! but rather there are real consequences that we face in every aspect of our lives, as is evidenced by several tragic events that help mold Tony into the activist that he ultimately becomes.
As a staged production, ¡Americano! exhibits none of the weakness of stereotypical “community theater”. The singing is flawless and impassioned. The choreography does as much to tell the story as the text and song lyrics. The orchestra was tight and authentic, transitioning between several different styles of music and complementing rather than competing with the voices. Each of the main performers, including those already mentioned, recognized their vital roles in the story and drew every laugh, every tear, every sigh, every smile from the audience at all the right moments. To say this performance was a “tear-jerker” is both an understatement and a deception. ¡Americano! also made me laugh out loud and cheer. It inspired me as both an American and as an activist. It was an honest portrayal of a slice of life that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
As luck would have it, at this particular performance, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Vice Mayor Betty Guardado were both on hand as audience members and to provide some background and context. Both Gallego and Guardado had met and worked with Antonio Valdovinos. Arizona being a particular hotspot in the undocumented immigrants controversy, Gallego and Guardado share firsthand experience with Valdovinos in addressing the issues that were only temporarily mitigated by the DACA program. Listening to the mayor and vice mayor speak before the performance was as real a connection as we could have had between the story we were about to experience and the reality that inspired it.
¡Americano! features an original score by singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez, musical arrangements by Sergio Mendoza with Marco Rosano, and book by Michael Barnard and Jonathan Rosenberg. Barnard is also the musical’s director. Choreography is by Sergio Mejia. Special kudos go to all of the preceding individuals for putting together a top-notch production worthy of the Broadway stage.