The musical as a political statement is a theatrical tradition. From the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” to “Hair” and “Hamilton,” these shows harness the power of music and story to move hearts and minds. They have tackled topics ranging from the greed of corporations to anti-war protest to the founding of our country.
“¡Americano!” continues that tradition in a powerful way, dramatizing the story of Tony Valdovinos, a young man brought to the US by his parents at age two and who never knew he wasn’t a US citizen until he tried to join the Marines. The story chronicles his struggle to be recognized and legitimized and his journey to political activism to benefit the entire Latinx community.
Although the book by Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Fernanda Santos is heavily expository, the show is nonetheless deeply personal and powerful. It is both eye-opening and compelling to see the challenge faced by Valdovinos and others like him who, through no fault of their own, find themselves stripped of a major component of their identities and trapped in a bureaucratic and political nightmare. Where it works strongly is in the portrayal of an inclusive community, including the gay dance instructor, and the people who are, in all senses of the word, dreamers.
The score by Carrie Rodriguez draws on the diverse styles of Latin music. From the exuberant to the heartfelt, it’s in the songs that the characters shine, and their inner lives are most developed. The opening number, set on a construction site, “We Pave the Way” sets up the overriding metaphor of the piece — that bold and brave visionaries pave the way for those who will come after them. Tony may not yet be a citizen, but he is fighting for others. Moreover, even as the obstacles seem insurmountable, there is reason to celebrate, sing, and, especially, dance. Sergio Mejia’s choreography is splendid, combining Latin traditions with contemporary athleticism. Barnard also directed the piece, and he fills it with energy and passion.
The large company, almost entirely Latinx, creates an indelible sense of place and time. Sean Ewing as Tony has an extraordinary voice and portrays the arc of the character — from lost and angry to confident and committed — with strength and grace. As Ceci, Tony’s girlfriend with whom he planned to join the Marines, Legna Cedillo has a brilliant presence, exceptional voice, and clear focus. The chemistry between Tony and Ceci is often electric. Supporting roles include Ryan Reyes as Tony’s brothers; Pablo Torres as Javi, a friend Tony protects from gang violence; and Justin Figueroa as Carlos Ledesma, the Arizona representative who inspires Tony to fight for his vision. As the gay dance instructor Joaquin, Lucas Coatney is funny, and equally importantly, he makes a forceful statement about strength in the face of adversity. The versatile set by Robert Andrew Kovach, costumes by Adriana Diaz, and lighting by Jamie Roderick, all of which contribute to the sense of this world and community.
This production was originally staged by Phoenix Theatre, consistent with their mission to promote multicultural sensitivity and understanding. In the case of “¡Americano!,” they have succeeded. It’s impossible to see this show and not be moved by those struggling to work around immigration policies and how they are affected. Creating that understanding in a broader audience on an emotional level is exactly the purpose of political theater.
“¡Americano!” | New World Stages | 540 West 50th Street | Mon, Weds, Thurs, Sun 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Sat 2 p.m. through June 19 | $49-$99 | Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hours, 30 min, 1 intermission