"Pity poor Mexico," the crazy saying goes; "so far from God and so close to the United States." The God part is up for discussion, as the overwhelming majority of Mexico's 105 million people are Roman Catholic-but there's no mistaking the impact behind that nation's proximity. A big fat chunk of America used to be Mexico, and for better or worse, the U.S. corporate machine has indelibly carved its tony likenesses on many a familiar vacation spot (gee-why does Cabo San Lucas come to mind?).
But enough with the travel tips. We're here to talk about cool stuff like theater and music and dance and history and pop culture and sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll and coming of age. And against the San Diego Repertory Theatre's world-premiere Corridos REMIX: A Musical Fusion of Ballads Beyond Borders, that's a fun and edifying and important thing to do.
The show has its incongruities, notably in an age discrepancy that doesn't always fit and in a few tunes that understate the story. But there's something more important going on here than a yarn by the father-son team of Luis and Kinan Valdez. This piece offers a generous take on the corrido, an art form that's enjoying a resurgence as Mexico forges a present from its formidable past. It's all very 21st century and very world-minded, its youthful spirit a lush complement to the corrido's historical consequence.
Corrido means "ballad," but the form actually features stories set to music and movement. It first evolved on the battlefields of medieval Spain, where religious conflict fueled the secular allegories and traditions of indigenous peoples. Centuries of permutations lead us to the home of El Maestro (Luis Valdez), who narrates the turns of events and counsels his granddaughter (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) on the corrido's import in world culture. She, of course, will have none of it, blinded as she is amid her jaded young adulthood.
"Fuck the Alamo!" she snorts, oblivious to the legendary bloodfest that in 1836 suppressed the Texas Territory's secessionist rebellion and returned the turf to federal Mexican control.
But while she's fucking the Alamo, the rest of the world is rotating on an enormous cultural axis. The 24 stories span ethnicities from France to Asia, and they work because they're not so much tributes to the cultures as to the beleaguered people within them. Listen to "The Appeal of John Chinaman," a laborer's clever rap-inspired indictment of fair-weather Christianity. The English translation keeps the Mandarin sentence construction intact, complete with pidginisms-the result is a delight to the ear. And "John Henry" is a bracing treatment on the former slave and his backbreaking labors on America's first railroads.
The music doesn't always support the moment (The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" and "Here Comes the Sun King" can't fit the mythic proportions swirling about the Chinese female warrior Mulan). And from some angles, the granddaughter's character might have worked better if she were a tad younger-later in the show, gramps' gentle entreaties erode the grown woman's barriers a little too simplistically.
In any event, a program note says the Valdezes dedicate this show to the memory of Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero, the so-called father of Chicano music. Tucson-born Guerrero died in March at age 88, having written some 700 songs over his 60-year career. His pieces spanned several genres, and he's popularly known for his parodies on discrimination against Mexicans (one entry is slyly titled "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Busboys"). His pachuco music of the mid-20th century was featured in the soundtrack to the play and movie Zoot Suit, which Luis Valdez wrote.
The corrido figured prominently in Guerrero's credits-and director Kinan Valdez, choreographer Javier Velasco, music helmsman Fred Lanuza and the tech crew can now claim an equivalent expertise in the form. This is a very nice entry, as much theater as theatrical, at once artifact and art. Go see it.This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 29. Corridos REMIX runs through May 22 at the Lyceum Theatre space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown. 619-544-1000. $26.50-$41.50.