If you could X-ray a play, the image you’d see of “American Mariachi” would show the bones of some familiar dramatic forms: the “let's put on a show!” story, the tradition-vs.-change tale, the saga of a reckoning between parent and child.
Now go ahead and shed that lead apron. (Never really a great look anyway.) José Cruz González’s new work about an all-woman mariachi band might pattern itself after tried-and-true ideas, but the play — which just opened in a vibrant production at the Old Globe — does more than dress up those old storytelling tropes.
It also delves into some tough and timely issues, and invests the story of the band with flashes of wit and plenty of personality.
Not to mention personalities: The members of the musical quintet emerge as admirably distinct characters under the direction of James Vásquez, the Globe regular who staged the first iteration of the play earlier this year at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Co., the Globe’s production partner on “Mariachi.”
That’s in keeping with what we learn from the playwright about mariachi, the Mexican musical form whose contrasting components — trumpet, guitar, violin, compact vihuela and hefty guitarrón — cohere to create an unmistakable, outsize sound.
For the big-dreaming but put-upon Lucha (Jennifer Paredes), the play’s central character, mariachi is connected to cherished childhood memories and bound up with a present-day mystery.
Lucha is the main caregiver for her mother, Amalia (Doreen Montalvo, in a sensitive portrayal), whose life has been drastically transformed by dementia. Lucha’s stressed-out dad, Federico (an earthy Bobby Plasencia), works as a cook and moonlights as a mariachi — traditionally a male-dominated art passed on from father to son.
Amalia is barely able to recognize her own family — but Lucha and her cousin and best pal Boli (Heather Velazquez) discover that when they play a certain old mariachi record buried in the family’s collection, Amalia’s memory seems to return and her spirits lift.
Amid a blow-up with her dad, Lucha convinces Boli to help her try and form their own mariachi band and learn to play the song, while also striking a blow for feminism. (The play is set in the American Southwest in the ’70s, a time when the obstacles were considerably higher for such an enterprise.)
What transpires is something of a theatrical whirlwind, and the play — which salts in a few exchanges in Spanish — packs so much action into its 90-minute, intermission-free running time that some of the developments can feel a little pat (and predictable).
But Paredes — who herself has been a one-woman whirlwind on San Diego stages of late — lends Lucha a winning feel of the irrepressible that helps carry things along. And Velazquez is a comic gem as the strutting, smack-talking Boli, who has just lost her hotel-maid job for fending off a sexual advance and is not one to back down from a challenge.
Together, the two recruit the rest of the group — the self-assured salon owner Soyla (a fiery and funny Crissy Guerrero), the shy but passionate Isabel (Amanda Robles, a powerful vocalist and gentle presence) and the sweetly awkward, Jesus-praising Gabby (Natalie Camunas, stealing several scenes with a memorably quirky performance).
They get a big assist from Federico’s former best friend Mino (likable Rodney Lizcano), a sympathetic fellow mariachi who figures into trouble from the family’s past. (The versatile Luis Quintero also makes the most of multiple smaller but piquant roles.)
And speaking of an assist: As the women fumble their way into playing, an actual mariachi band also graces the Globe stage — and the aisles — at times: Erick Jimenez, Ruben Marín, Martin Padilla, Tom Tinoco and the spectacular (and spectacularly named) trumpeter Fernando Guadalupe Zárate Hernandez.
Music director Cynthia Reifler Flores — herself a pioneering real-life mariachi — keeps the music sharp and lively on Regina Garcia’s attractive set, dominated by a beautiful mural with a female mariachi at its center. (Meghan Anderson Doyle’s costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting and Ken Travis’ sound are also first-rate.)
The two bands come together near play’s end, in a moment of reflection and reconciliation that aptly captures the rich and bittersweet pleasures of the music the play celebrates.
When: Previews begin Friday. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 29.
Where: Old Globe Theatre’s Darlene and Donald Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up.
Phone: (619) 234-5623