Theater review by Regina Robbins
Based on the life story of Tony Valdovinos, who tried to enlist in the Marines at the age of 18 only to discover he was not an American citizen, ¡Americano! is full of lessons about community, family, love and resilience. This new musical’s good intentions are obvious. Unfortunately, so is a lot of the writing.
You’d have to be heartless not to feel for high school senior Tony (Sean Ewing), who watched the Twin Towers collapse on TV from his Arizona home and vowed to join the military armed forces when he grew up. His best friend, Ceci (Legna Cedillo), also intends to enlist, but they are confronted by issues that could complicate their plans, including the troubled home life of their friend Javi (Pablo Torres) and romantic longings of their own. And when Tony tells the local recruitment center that his Social Security number is “in process”—the excuse he has been given by his father (Alex Paez)—he is turned away. At first he is despondent: He can’t even afford community college, since Arizona has recently voted to charge undocumented residents at out-of-state tuition rates. But he finds a new purpose in politics, working to motivate Latinx voters so that some day, the DREAM Act might finally pass.
Valdovinos’s story really is inspirational, and it might have inspired a successful musical. But ¡Americano! feels more like a long campaign ad. The righteousness of the message can’t overcome undistinguished melodies and awkward lyrics (“How could they leave out this detail/And make my life a living hell”); the overstuffed book, determined to represent as many facets of the Mexican-American experience as possible, repeatedly introduces subplots that resolve too neatly or fade away with no explanation. High-energy dance sequences with Marines in fatigues might make sense in another show but elicit cringes in this one.
Director Michael Barnard, who has shepherded the production from its Arizona premiere to its current Off Broadway run, doubles down on the material’s strained earnestness, while the talented actors do their best with what they’ve been given. As Tony’s adoring mom, Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda gives the show’s most lived-in performance, and Lucas Coatney makes every moment count as Joaquin, the kind of gay-coded friend who seems to exist to solve straight people’s problems. Ironically, the show is most engaging when its characters are doing everyday, all-American things like prepping for a picnic or dancing in a high school gym—which runs against the message the show tries so passionately to convey. ¡Americano! wants us to take its immigrant characters’ real problems seriously, but the more serious they become, the less real they seem.
¡Americano! New World Stages (Off Broadway). Book by Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg and Fernanda Santos. Music and lyrics by Carrie Rodriguez. Additional lyrics by Barnard and Rosenberg. Directed by Barnard. With Sean Ewing, Legna Cedillo, Alex Paez, Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
¡Americano! | Photograph: Courtesy Maria Baranova