By Marilyn Lester . . .

What does it mean to be an American?—that’s a question we’ve been grappling with since 1776. It’s also the question the new musical, ¡Americano!, a true story, tries to answer through the lens of undocumented Mexican-American activist Antonio Valdovinos. ¡Americano! is an ambitious work, full of energy and zesty music—with hats off to a cast that works hard and with intense commitment to deliver maximum impact. They’re a talented group, fully inhabiting the many characters they portray, a boon to a piece that’s very much hit or miss.

In ¡Americano!, book writers Michael Barnard, Jonathan Rosenberg and Fernanda Santos, with Carrie Rodriguez, who wrote music and lyrics, take a stab at what being American means in toto, circling around the core story of Valdovinos. In the mid-late 1990s, his parents brought him to the US as an infant, managed to stay under the radar as undocumented, and never revealed the circumstances of their status to him. The attacks of 9/11 when he was a boy had a great effect on him: Tony became intensely patriotic and desired only to serve his country as a Marine when he graduated from his Phoenix, Arizona high school and turned 18. Those dreams were brutally shattered at the recruiting office when he was told he and his parents, undocumented, were not citizens of this country. This revelation is the ultimate dramatic thrust of ¡Americano! 

Cast of ¡Americano!

The musical had its premiere at The Phoenix Theatre Company in February 2020 (just before the pandemic lockdown), just three years after President Barack Obama’s 2017 Executive Order (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals or DACA) gave legal protection from deportation to immigrants like Tony. The post-lockdown production at New World Stages has again been directed by Michael Barnard, the company’s Producing Artistic Director. Barnard’s work is sound, keeping the energy up and action flowing—a positive for a weak book that’s often expository (as are the lyrics) and wanders from the central theme with minor, distracting or undeveloped storylines, such as an offhand thread about Phoenix gang life. 

Establishing scenes of family life occupy most of the first act. The energy invested therein yields little dramatic return, squandering the opportunity to quickly get into the real drama of Tony’s discovery, with its subsequent anger and feelings of deep betrayal. In act two Tony becomes an activist, working with local politicians. There are rallies, speeches and eventual resolution with family. But the upshot is that the sum total of Americano! is often too heavy-handed and simply isn’t very compelling. All’s the pity, for there is an important story in Tony Valdovinos’ journey; it’s just not the one being portrayed at New World Stages. 

Alex Paez

Sean Ewing, as Tony (a role he’s repeating from the Phoenix premiere), is forceful in his role. With a superb voice—a boon since he carries the weight of the show’s musical numbers squarely on his shoulders— he makes the most of his characterization, elevating the thin plot with his ardor and commitment. In supporting roles, another member of the original cast, Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda as Tony’s mother, Felicitas Valdovinos, is a master of capturing emotion, brilliantly executing a range from humorous to fearful to anxious and more, hitting all the notes you’d expect from a concerned and loving mother. 

Tony’s girlfriend, Cici López, is played by Legna Cedillo with a stunning vocal ability, especially with a solo on “I Can See It in Your Eyes,” a ballad with a Mexican folk flair. As Tony’s fully American and slightly younger, brainy brother, Fro (Hector) Valdovinos, Ryan Reyes exudes a delightful charm, playing nerdy and sweet. His meeting with his equally nerdy soul mate, Jessica Bazán (Carolina Miranda) is a splendidly realized bit, with the interaction of these two injecting much-needed light-hearted and humorous moments into the heart of Americano! Alex Paez as Tony’s father, Martin, leading the cast in the opening number, is an anchoring force who pretty much then fades to the background thereafter. The large ensemble, most playing multiple roles, go through their paces with grit and grace. These players move around the colorful set by Robert Andrew Kovach, designed as if a peek into a dollhouse, with agility. They are Juan Luis Espinal, Justin Figueroa, Pablo Torres, Yassmin Alers, Anne-Lise Koyabe, Alessandro J. Lopez, Lucas Coatney and Robbie Serrano .

The strong suit of Americano! is the music itself—uninspired lyrics not so much. Rodriguez keenly incorporates Mexican rhythms into a largely pop score, which includes a few too many that serve as anthems, such as We Pave the Way and Stand Our Ground. Instrumentation is mariachi-based, with conductor and keyboardist Jonathan Ivie; drummer Caleb Michel; electric and string bass player Steve Millhouse; classical, acoustic and electric guitarist Gus Tomizuka; accordionist, trombone player and second keyboard Saul Millan; violinist and percussionist Quetzal Guerrero; and trumpet player Jackie Coleman. 

Robust choreography by Sergio Mejia equally matches the fulsome sound of the band, giving the production much-needed pizzazz. Fight choreography is by Caesar F. Barajas; costume design by Adriana Diaz; lighting design by Jamie Roderick and sound design by Kevin Heard.

Americano! Through June 19 at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Two hours, one intermission. 

Photos: Maria Baranova