By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 17, 2022: Among many things for which this addled season of Covid-based cancelations and postponements will be remembered is the abundance of those little slips of paper you find in your Playbill notifying you that at this performance the role of “_____” will be played by “_____.” This has been the season of understudies, so many, in fact, that articles, videos, and social media comments about their often remarkable contributions have flooded the internet. I can’t go on Facebook without reading, for example, about how a certain understudy in a certain long-awaited musical revival is superior to the performer she has sometimes had to replace.
When a leading actor is involved, reviewers are often notified in advance that someone will be out. Usually, they’re asked to rebook so they can see the original performer when they return to the cast. Sometimes, however, they have the option to see the understudy, as happened when I saw Holly Gould replace Shaina Taub in Suffs. Other times, as when I saw ¡Americano! at Off Broadway’s New World Stages on Monday night, they remain uninformed until they’re already seated, program in hand. I didn’t notice that notorious little slip of paper, in fact, until my plus-one pointed it out during the intermission.
Partly, that’s because there was no reason to suspect that Devin Cortez, the actor replacing Sean Ewing in the central role of Tony Valdovinos, was an understudy. He’s good-looking and charismatic, with solid singing chops and the smooth moves of a trained dancer. He needs to pay more attention to the clarity of his diction, but his mastery of the often complicated staging and choreography gave no reason to suspect he was not himself the star. He was the star, though, for at least this night, and the way the cast mobbed him with love and respect during the curtain calls was a sign of how grateful they were for his coming through so beautifully in the clutch.
On the other hand, I could have done without a contingent of young fans (or friends) who seemed to be there to cheer him on by carrying on throughout with whoops, hollers, and shrieks as if they were not at a musical comedy but at a taping of “The Voice” or “American Idol.” Then again, maybe the show has spawned a groupie fandom that shows up every night.
¡Americano!, which had its world premiere atArizona’s Phoenix Theatre Company, deals with an issue of enormous contemporary significance, the plight of the “Dreamers,” those people brought to the USA by their illegal immigrant parents in infancy, raised as if they were Americans, and eventually confronted by their lack of citizenship, with strict limits on their freedom and the possibility of deportation.
The story, set in Phoenix, is that of the real-life Tony Valdovinos, a nearly 18-year-old, high school senior and construction worker, whose parents are Mexican illegals, the stern Martin (Alex Paez) and the maternal Felicitas (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, who scores with “Amor de Madre”). An earnest patriot since the events of 9/11, Tony has aspired ever since to be a Marine. When the time comes, though, he discovers through his lack of a Social Security number that he’s not a citizen, a secret kept from him by his parents. His dream of fighting for America crushed, he learns of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, supports a local politician, Carlos Ledesma (Justin Figueroa), seeking to help Latinos like him, founds a get-out-the vote organization called La Machine (which has its own number), and eventually achieves citizenship.
This is a heartwarming story of family, patriotism, friendship, romance, and political activism, enlivened by Carrie Rodriguez’s lively, often rousing, music blending listenable Mexican and country western styles. Its book, however, written by Michael Barnard (who also directed), Jonathan Rosenberg, and Fernanda Santas, has an overabundance of subplots, superficial characters, and, at two and a half hours, an overlong running time. As presented, Tony seems far more mature than most kids his age, which only makes his naiveté about his Social Security status that much harder to swallow. In fact, none of the teenagers comes off as anything but an adult actor trying to act young.
The unexciting plot includes Tony’s ambiguous romantic relationship with Ceci (Legna Cedillo); a secondary affair between Tony’s 16-year-old brother, Hector (Ryan Reyes), and a smart girl (you can tell by her glasses) named Jessica (Carolina Miranda); the drug troubles of Tony’s friend Javi (Pablo Torres); and the supportive friendship of Tony’s witty gay friend Joaquin (Lucas Coatney). All of it comes to seem more like stuffing than substance. And much as this may seem a lot, it gets delivered even before we’ve become immersed in Tony’s newfound goal in life, grass-roots political activism, which occupies much of Act Two.
Despite the seriousness of the content, the fast-paced show revels in upbeat songs and dances (the vibrant choreography is by Sergio Mejia) that often make it seem more a celebration of patriotic resilience as seen through the world of a plucky survivor than an exposé of the situation it seeks to redress. Helping to keep the show spinning are several dynamically choreographed scenes, like those showing construction workers on the job (“We Pave the Way”); Marines at drill training (“Come and Join the Marines”); and kids at a high school dance (think The Prom, Grease, etc.).
Robert Andrew Kovach’s cluttered set, with multiple locales depicted simultaneously, is brightly lit by Jamie Roderick, while Adriana Diaz provides lots of colorful costumes to enliven the proceedings.
Hopefully, one day, the Dream Act, in limbo since being introduced in 2001, will pass. Perhaps more—and better—shows about its absence will help push the process along. For now, ¡Americano! is an imperfect but decent enough start that pleases with its spirited music, dancing, and performances, if not so much with its less-than-inspiring book. And should you by chance see that slip of paper in your program with Devin Cortez’s name on it, be assured you’re going to get your money’s worth.
New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through June 19
Photography: Maria Baranova