Houston Theater Christmas 2022, Part V

A lot of hard choices in El Milagro del Recuerdo amid the Christmas season.
A lot of hard choices in El Milagro del Recuerdo amid the Christmas season. Photo by Michael Bishop

Butterflies are Free

For the Yuletide season Houston Grand Opera reprises its second “mariachi opera,” El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Memory), a prequel to their first, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (Cross the Face of the Moon). It's joyous and tuneful, composed by Javier Martínez, son of the godfather of mariachi, Pepe Martínez, who wrote Cruzar. Both musicals have librettos by Leonard Foglia.

Husband and father Laurentino (Frederico De Michelis) works as a bracero or seasonal migrant worker in the U.S. He is often gone for months at a time, to the dismay of wife Renata (Cecilia Duarte) who blames his absences for the family beginning to fall apart. She wants him home for good. His young son needs him. He likes the money he earns to keep his family fed, clothed, and sheltered. As man of the house he must provide, that's his job. On Christmas Eve, he makes a surprise visit to his home town Michoacán, Mexico, the winter home of the monarch butterfly, which is constantly referred to as it was in Cruzar as emblems of memories past, the fragility and beauty of life. In a shower of brightly painted cut-outs, they rain down on the young Laurentino and Renata during their childhood reveries.

They have known each other since, married, have a son Rafael, and are deeply in love. But Renata has had enough. Stubborn and a bit of a termagant, she wants him to remain here, and the protestations, though mild from Laurentino, are rebuffed with wistful stiffness. Duarte, one of the premier mariachi interpreters, works wonders with this role, bringing a subtle dramatic contrast of her love of Laurentino versus his macho resolve to provide for his family. She must compromise.

Their problems are matched by best friend and fellow bracero, Chucho (Miguel De Aranda) who wants to relocate permanently to America. His wife Lupito (Vanessa Alonzo) is tempted, and in the song “American Girl, American Guy”) their love of American culture is front and center, like a mariachi version of West Side Story's “America.”

Memories swirl throughout. There's a woman in white (Vanessa Becerra) who appears like magic realism as various visions, or as a pinata shop assistant in a store that had closed years before, or as elderly Aba's (Hector Vasquez) dead mother who lightly brushes his cheek as he remembers her. There's magic in these hills in southwest Mexico.

The priest Father Matías (a powerful Rafael Moras) has memories of his parents not approving of his choice to be a priest; while grandfather Aba wonders what his dead parents, who died fighting in the Revolution, would think of his unadventurous life. Everybody has a remembrance then a song about it, and the opera moves on.

Mariachi can be soft and lovely, like Laurentino's litling lullaby to sleeping Rafael, or strong and vibrant in Renata's protestations, but it can't define emotions with specificity like opera does at its core. The colors are limited, the range confined. It can be loud or soft, just not much variation between. And at a certain point, it all begins to sound the same, no matter how brilliantly performed. And the added orchestral colors, under maestro Benjamin Manis, augment the virtuoso playing of the Trio Chapultepec (Vincent Pequeño, William Carlton Galvez, and Israel Alcala), who shadow the production, playing in the background or coming forward to the footlights to dazzle with their consummate musicianship. If there's a beating heart in Milagro, it's Chupultepec.

Folgia's libretto is sprinkled with poetry and wry observation. Laurentino holds Renata and tells her she's his window through which he sees the world; Father Matías' family name will die with him, and he will then be forgotten; Renata's mother Josephina (Claudia Chapa) warns her daughter wryly if her hardheartedness is right why does everybody in town think she's wrong.

The production looks lovely, with Neil Patel's great adobe arches transfigured into a plaza, a church, a hillside, or part of a kitchen; under the soft palette of lighting designer Ken Billington, and Gregory Gale's la pastorela costumes. When the pageant springs to life at the end, the rich tapestry of family and tradition that we've seen in the detailed show curtain – which is quite beautiful – comes to life. If problems aren't resolved to anyone's satisfaction – all are left floating in the ether – there's community and love to hold everyone together at least through Christmas. And there's that beguiling thrump and flair of mariachi to bring on smiles and stamping feet.

El Milagro del Recuerdo continues at 2:30 p.m. December 11, 7 p.m. December 13-17, and 2:30 p.m. December 18 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit $30-$107.
The masters of the mashup at Music Box Theater.
Phot by Eden Rose Torres

Christmas with George, Paul, John, Ringo, and others

Whoever at Music Box Theater came up with “mashing” Christmas carols with Beatles' tunes should get a Tony Award, if not the Nobel. What a weird and wonderful idea. A Beatles Holiday Cabaret works with a musical and emotional rightness that is downright brilliant. “The First Noel” and “Here Comes the Sun”? Yes. “Eleanor Rigby” and “We Three Kings”? Sure enough. “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Revolution”? Yeap.

The Fab Four is in superlative hands with MBT's Fab Five: Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Kristina Sullivan, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel. As is usual and expected with this ultra-talented troupe, they sing up a storm, play off each other, sing backup, dance backup, and flirt with the band, which sounds better and better with each edition. Who does their arrangements? I'm assuming it's keyboardist deluxe Austin Biel, but maybe it's amazing Mark McCain, lead guitar; or swinging Long Le, bass guitar; or the be-bobbing Arthur Gilligan, percussion. I doubt they buy them off the internet, but maybe. Wherever they get them, they're great. Jazzy and improv-like, with wisps of celesta, a whoosh of wind, or a big burst of sound. When on full burn, they sound like a philharmonic. Pair this quartet with the singing/dancing quintet and you get a glorious convergence. The universe aligns.

Listen to Scarborough's sexy croon on Charles Brown's “Please Come Home for Christmas” mingled effortlessly with McCartney's “Oh! Darling.” His croon turns to rocker's wail. By the end he's in the stratosphere and does a mock collapse. That's its own present. Or Wrobel and Scarborough gently dueling “Long and Winding Road” with “I'll Be Home for Christmas.” A showstopper might be Taylor's honeyed soprano surveying “Dear Prudence” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Heavenly. Maybe you'll like Sullivan's crystalline voice eerily purring through “Eleanor Rigby” and “We Three Kings.”

Not all mashups are Beatles tributes. Greenwich, Barry, and Spector's “Christmas Baby, Please Come Home” gets epic treatment by Dahl in full pop-star diva mode. Delicious. And there's the elegiac Shabbat-tinged “Elohai N'tzor” from Pink Martini, whispered reverently by the five. It's a defining moment. Or perhaps Wrobel, channeling his inner Elvis, and Dahl having a blast on “Blue Christmas” will ring your bell; or the group doing a pitch-perfect a cappella rendition of “Ob-La-De Ob-La-Da.” The band claps along as each singer becomes their own percussion section. Witty, inventive, and oh, so good.

If you want a lively dose of holiday cheer, this is the place to find it. The human voice is its own miracle. You'll feel lighter after this show.

By the way, Music Box Theater is moving from their base on Colquitt. The lease expires in April, and they decided it was time to move on up. After their show in early April, their new home will be Queensbury Theatre in the City Center complex in Memorial City, just south of 1-10 and east of Sam Houston Tollway at 12777 Queensbury Lane. The company will be housed in the theater's black box, reconfigured with a stage and table seating. Music Box wants to keep the intimate cabaret experience the same as on Colquitt. The drive will be a bit longer, but Music Box is worth it. We wish them continued success. God speed.

A Beatles Holiday Cabaret continues through December 28 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. December 22 and 27 at 2623 Colquitt. For more information call 713-522-7722 or visit $35-$48.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover