‘American Mariachi’ showing at Denver Center Stage Theater through Feb. 25 | VailDaily.com

‘American Mariachi’ showing at Denver Center Stage Theater through Feb. 25

Alex Miller
Special to the Daily

"American Mariachi" is a play with a lot of music in it, telling the story of a group of girls who decide to form an all-female mariachi band to plan an old, favorite song of one of their sick mothers.

There are a lot of wonderful things happening in "American Mariachi," a new play by Jose Cruz Gonzalez — and mariachi music is just the beginning.

Not a musical, "American Mariachi" is a play with a whole lot of music in it, and it had me thinking of mariachi a whole lot differently than I ever did before. While for Americans it may be reduced to that band that came up to your table at the Mexican restaurant, mariachi has a rich cultural history and a great bit more complexity than many might realize.

But it's also not really what this play is about.

Familiar tale of underdogs

The action is centered around a family that's coming apart, with the scene set in the 1970s in a Latino community somewhere in the American West. A young woman who's trying to get her own adult life started is beholden to family responsibilities, most notably in caring for her mother who's suffering from dementia. The father, leader of a mariachi band, isn't around much, and he's carrying a chip on his shoulder that's festered for years.

"American Mariachi" may be set in the 1970s, but the topic of dementia contains even more relevance today. Amalia (Doreen Montalvo) is pretty far along with the disease, but the character at times flashes back to earlier times, and we get to see the beautiful, radiant and talented woman she used to be.

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Daughter Lucha (Jennifer Paredes) isn't ready to let her go yet, and she hatches a scheme to start her own, all-female mariachi band to play an old, favorite song of Amalia's in hopes that it might break through one more time.

But it won't be easy. Lucha doesn't play anything, and neither do any of the friends she recruits. She also knows her father Frederico (Bobby Plasencia) won't be on board with the scheme, so she's compelled to conduct rehearsals without his knowledge.

Fortunately, she gets the help of another mariachi named Mino (Rodney Lizcano) and her best friend Boli (Heather Velazquez) and the race is on to learn enough mariachi to play the song.

In some ways, "American Mariachi" is a familiar tale of underdogs on a hero's journey, but Gonzalez's script masterfully weaves in past and present while also interlacing the mariachi throughout. We know the women are far from being able to play, but Frederico's band appear at strategic moments throughout, busting out parts of songs to move the story along. In one memorable scene, Mino explains to the women the role of each instrument as the musicians illustrate with snippets of song.

Since mariachi are ideally suited to moving around while playing, their appearances are both magical and seamless. Sometimes they're comic relief, sometimes they're mood music and, at the end, they become part of the story themselves.

How it all works together adds up to a moving, funny and touching piece of theater that brought the crowd immediately to its feet on opening night for an extending standing ovation.

Developed as part of the Denver Center's New Play Summit in2016, "American Mariachi" is a truly unique experience that seems to make a stop on every human emotion.

If you go …

What: “American Mariachi” — a musical play.

Where: Denver Center Stage Theater, about two hours from Vail.

When: Through Feb. 25.

Tickets: Visit denvercenter.org.