By Michael Buzzelli
Metaphorically, El Salvador is far from Los Angeles as Kansas is from Oz, but Reina (Isabella Campos) is willing to give up everything to find out for sure in Brian Quijada’s “Somewhere Over the Border.”
Take L. Frank Baum’s classic fairy tale, add a harrowing journey across South America hit pulse, whip and puree. Quijada takes his mother’s true-to-life tale about her sojourn to Tijuana to meet the El Gran Coyote to take her across the border and into the United States, and turns it into his own family fable, zhuzhing it up with the “Wizard of Oz.”
The Narrator (Arusi Santi) will tell you that things are not great in Chanmico, El Salvador in the late 70s, especially for Reina, who, at seventeen, just gave birth.
Naturally, her mother, Julia (Ariana Valdes), does not want Reina to leave the village, but she fears she has no choice if she wants a better life. She abandons her baby and gets on the bus heading to Tijuana to meet the coyote who will safely get her across the border, or so she thinks. Things aren’t as they seem, or, in other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
On her way, she meets some colorful characters, including Cruz (Jerreme Rodriguez), who wants an American education in Agriculture, Silvano (Bobby Plasencia) who wants to reunite with his family, and Sister Leonia (Gloria Vivica Benavides) who wants to give up the sisterhood and join a rock and roll band.
If you guessed that her fellow travelers are seeking brains, heart and courage you can figure out where it all leads. Their pilgrimage to the U.S., however, is more perilous than Dorothy’s and the threats are far more real.
Brian Quijada (“Where Did We Sit On The Bus?” in 2018) cooks up an intriguing interpretation of his family’s events. It’s more comedy than tragedy, but there is an underlying current of danger threaded through the story. Mostly, it is a glorious treatise about the American Dream.
Deftly directed by Laura Alcalá Baker with an amazing cast.Santi does a remarkable job. Don’t let the character’s name fool you. He’s more than a simple narrator. He takes on many roles and he does it with flair.
Campos is a excellent choice for the lead. She plays Reina as level-headed, smart, kind and caring, a fully-realized human being.
Valdes gets to belt, hitting some crazy high notes in a powerful ballad. It’s one of the highlights of the show.
Benavides is a break out star of the show, even playing the comic relief. She portrays two characters who are polar opposites from one another, but you’ll want more of both.
The band really makes “Somewhere Over the Border” sparkle. Michael Meketa leads two percussionists, Hugo Cruz and Noel Quintana, and a guitarist, Daniel Santander in an array of South American music.
Scenic designer Chelsea M. Warren brought the quaint village of Chinmico to the stage, with room for the marvelous band and a rotating platform at center so the characters can ease on down the road. Warren’s set has some pop up components that add to the whimsy of the show.
This premiere production of “Somewhere Over the Border” is a collaborative effort between the City Theatre, Pittsburgh CLO and the People’s Light, an organization out of Malvern, PA. The collaboration, literally and figuratively, made beautiful music together.
“Somewhere Over the Border” is a great evening of entertainment, but it reminds you that each person who risks their life to come here has something worth risking their lives for. The show may also remind you that the United States, despite all of its faults, is a place people come to realize their dreams.
“Somewhere Over the Border” runs until October 15 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.