Tony Valdovinos who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, was 18 before he found out that he was an undocumented immigrant. The new musical ¡Americano! is based on the true story of his life and challenges. Impassioned and spirited with an animated cast that seems to be living their roles rather than acting them, the show is a superior musical entertainment. Staged with vigor and energy by Michael Barnard, artistic director of The Phoenix Theatre Company where the show premiered in 2020, and choreographer Sergio Mejia, ¡Americano! is both poignant and entertaining, moving along with the speed of an express train with never a minute wasted in its urgent storytelling.
About to turn 18, Tony, who has worked for his father in demolition since he was a child, has dreamed of becoming a Marine all of his life along with his friend Ceci who comes from two generations of Marines. His parents who are from Mexico have been stringing him along as to why he has not gotten his Social Security card. It is left to the Marine recruiter on his 18th birthday to explain to him that as an undocumented immigrant he can’t join the U.S. Marines.
Just at the point that he is about to become engaged to Ceci, she is able to join up and leaves for training. Miserable as to his ambiguous status and his uncertain future as one of the Dreamers, although he has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, he is introduced to a social worker helping the undocumented by Ceci’s dance instructor Joaquin who refuses to let him wallow in self-pity and later a political activist who wants to run for Congress and is looking to employ a fiery go-getter. Other plot strands include the plight of his father’s workers some of whom are also undocumented, that of Tony’s friend Javi in thrall to his gang-involved brother Dante, and his younger brother Fro’s awkwardness around girls and general shyness.
The book by Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg and Fernanda Santos is a bit cluttered with many plot strands but in performance it is not a problem for following the story. The major issue of Act I (Tony’s wanting to get into the Marines) seems to be dropped in Act II as the musical veers off in another direction (his becoming a DACA activist) but the two parts work well together, nevertheless, despite the change in tone. The Latin- tinged music and dense lyrics by singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez (additional lyrics by Barnard and Rosenberg) makes you want to get up and dance with its many lively production numbers, as well as lovely duets and ballads. Mejia’s choreography puts this in competition with Paradise Square for the dancing-est musical in town with large cast numbers for a company picnic, the Marine workout, and a senior prom, among others.
Sean Ewing is an impassioned Tony, believable as both the angry teenager he was and the efficient activist he became. As his girlfriend Ceci, Legna Cedillo has a beautiful soprano and an engagingly wry manner. As her very gay friend and dance instructor, Lucas Coatney steals every scene he is in both from his pragmatic outlook and his droll sense of humor. Alex Paez and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda as Tony’s parents make a finely matched team, sparring for the best for their sons. Ryan Reyes holds his own as Tony’s nerdy younger brother Hector, known as Fro, while Carolina Miranda as Jessica, Fro’s classmate who is equally a bookworm comes out of her shell beautifully as she grows up.
Robert Andrew Kovach’s versatile unit set impresses with the number of ways it can be reconfigured for the show’s many locations, from a construction site to a family kitchen, to a high school gymnasium, a marine recruiting office and a political rally. The many costumes by Adriana Diaz are both colorful and realistic. Jamie Roderick’s lighting varies from scene to scene as the musical encompasses many times of day and locale. Kevin Heard’s sound design makes the words crystal clear. The untranslated Spanish, while authentic, will be a problem for those who do not know the language. The direction by Barnard keeps this large cast show tightly together, while Mejia’s choreography gives them some impressive footwork.
The new musical ¡Americano! is not only a moving biographical story but a reminder of how much more has to be done with our deficient immigration policy, a topic rarely dealt with on our stages. The problems of these illegal immigrants living in the United States for decades with the fear of being deported is a very real daily issue for millions of people. With fine writing by a team of bookwriters and lyricists, and a vigorous cast who makes their tale our story, ¡Americano! is a worthy addition to the literature of the American stage. It is not often that we care enough about the characters in a musical to root for them but this is one such show.
¡Americano! (through June 19, 2022)
New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com
For more information: http://www.AmericanoTheMusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission