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Review: ¡Americano! Introduces the Musical Theater to Its Newest Dreamer

A new off-Broadway show reminds us of America's unkept promise to the DACA kids.

Sean Ewing leads the cast of ¡Americano!, directed by Michael Barnard, at New World Stages.
(© Maria Baranova)

What if something you always assumed was true suddenly proved to be false? This is exactly what happened to Tony Valdovinos when he showed up at a US Marines recruitment office only to be denied enlistment, because he is not an American citizen. This was news to him, as it often is for the thousands of ostensibly American kids brought to this country at a young age, who have known no other home. In the political vernacular they are called "dreamers," after the Dream Act meant to offer them a pathway to citizenship, which was first introduced in Congress in 2001 but has yet to pass.

Tony's true story is the subject of ¡Americano!, a new musical that premiered at Phoenix Theatre (developed in association with AMAS Musical Theatre) and is now making its off-Broadway debut at New World Stages. Featuring a lively score, triumphant performances, and an all-American story, there's plenty to love about this show.

The book (by Jonathan Rosenberg, Fernanda Santos, and director Michael Barnard) opens on the construction site where Tony (Sean Ewing) works demolition with his dad (Alex Paez) and younger brother (a charmingly goofy Ryan Reyes). Tony doesn't want to do construction forever: His big dream is to join the Marines alongside his girlfriend, Ceci (Legna Cedillo). But when a recruiter informs him that he is ineligible due to his immigration status, he becomes enraged at his parents for withholding this information from him. Then he begins to despair.

Dance instructor and fellow dreamer Joaquin (a fabulously sassy Lucas Coatney) tries to help Tony out of his funk by inviting him to a meeting about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, an executive order by President Obama that would keep Tony in the country and offer him a work permit — it's not the dream, but it's a start.

Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda plays Tony's mom in Americano!
(© Maria Baranova)

Composer Carrie Rodriguez sets this story to a Tejano-inspired score that feels right at home on the musical stage, immediately inviting us in with the catchy "We Pave the Way," one of the better opening numbers I've heard this season. Uncomplicated yet lucid lyrics get the story across and pave the way for some of the best vocal performances off-Broadway right now.

Ewing soars into the clouds with his pristine tenor, never seeming to tire over the course of this two hour, 30 minute musical in which he is almost always onstage. Cedillo endows Ceci with both vocal strength and real heart. Paez lends his rich voice and authentically paternal severity to Mr. Valdovinos, helping us to see his perspective in "Between the Bricks & the Bars." But the knockout performance of the evening comes from Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda as Tony's mom. Her aching rendition of "Amor de Madre" grabs the attention of every person in the audience; and her second act number, "We Could Go This Way," puts us all in the shoes of Mr. and Mrs. Valdovinos and asks us which way we would go.

Sergio Mejia is the choreographer of Americano!
(© Maria Baranova)

Barnard has staged an energetic production on Robert Andrew Kocach's multi-level set, with plenty of visual splendor offered by Adriana Diaz's well-considered contemporary costumes (anyone who wears a ski cap in Arizona, as our primary antagonist does, is asking for trouble).

Whenever the show seems about to sag, the ensemble bursts onto the stage to perform Sergio Mejia's athletic choreography, which employs multiple Latin styles and some militaristic marching in formation. This is an unapologetically sincere flag-waving American musical — and that feels like a breath of fresh air in an age of snark and cynicism.

Sean Ewing and Justin Figueroa appear in the second act of ¡Americano! at New World Stages.
(© Maria Baranova)

The first act goes down better than the second, when Tony sets about solving his problem through activism, and by running the congressional campaign of former Marine Carlos Ledesma (Justin Figueroa, the very model of an Obama Era Democrat). Echoes of Hamilton and Fiorello! reverberate onstage as Tony knocks on doors and recruits volunteers for La Machine. (Who says that the Latino immigrants of today are unlike their Irish and Italian predecessors?) And yet the transition from personal to political feels a bit too tidy, like a candidate's official biography. We cannot help but feel like Tony — that a big secret is being kept from us.

"You're not like the other boys, Tony," Ceci sings in the first act. And we sense that too — in Tony's unfailingly chivalrous (and standoffish) approach to Ceci, his more mercurial relationship with Joaquin (he runs away from home and moves in with the dance instructor), and his propensity to throw himself into his work as if to forestall all thoughts of a personal life. These are all signals that will register with many in the audience who have lived through similar experiences (only to come out of them). It's also clearly not the story the book writers mean to tell, which is a dissonance neither they nor the director were able to resolve.

That major-ish problem aside, ¡Americano! proves to be a delight. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it doesn't pretend to. It's just a good old-fashioned musical about a promise America really ought to keep already.

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