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Review: Take the Quickest Path to City Theatre for a Magical Musical Migrant Journey

The Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and October 1, performances of Somewhere Over the Border were canceled “due to performer illness (non-COVID).” Continue to check the ticket site or follow City Theatre on social media for updates.

By SHARON EBERSON

On every family tree, I believe there exists a branch that includes a brave, hopeful soul who left everything they knew, in search of a better way of life for themselves and their loved ones. 

One such story inspired the multidisciplinary theater artist Brian Quiijada to create Somewhere Over the Border, putting his distinct spin on his mother Reina’s nearly 3,000-mile trek from El Salvador to San Diego. At 17, the real-life Reina fled a country in conflict, expecting the United States to offer a safe and prosperous home for the infant son she left behind.

Narrator Arusi Santi and Isabella Campos as Reina in the City Theatre co-production of Somewhere Over the Border that opened the 2023-24 season.
(Images: Kristi Jan Hoover)

The hardships and the helpers she met along the way sparked writer-composer Quijada to present her sometimes rapturous, sometimes treacherous journey as an Oz-ian adventure, in a timely musical that spreads joy and portrays sorrow in equally compelling measure. 

With a terrific ensemble cast led by newcomer Isabella Campos as Reina, and transportive rhythms, Somewhere Over the Border opens the 2023-24 City Theatre season, overflowing with heart and urgency. 

Although set in 1978, this co-production with Pittsburgh CLO and People’s Light of Malvern, PA, could be set in the here and now, when the plight of migrants at our southern border is ever present. 

Innocence and ignorance allow young Reina to be sold a dream of a utopian United States, where green cards are plentiful, and send her on a path that mirrors that of Dorothy Gale’s journey along the often rocky Yellow Brick Road. Like Dorothy, Reina will learn powerful lessons about the place we call “home.”

From its title, you know that the show shares DNA with L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, but also vibes with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Quijada’s distinct way with mixed-media storytelling, woven with pop culture sensibilities and deeply personal sentiments.

I was immediately put in mind of In the Heights when the show opened with hip-hop narration. Other similarities include a mashup of musical genres, gift-wrapped in an endless, infectious Latin beat that welcomes you and extends to an uplifting escort as you exit.

The onstage Pittsburgh-based musicians setting the mood include music director Michael Meketa on keyboards, percussionist Hugo Cruz, Noel “Mr. Conga” Quintana and guitarist Daniel Santander

Often joining in on guitar or soloing is narrator/troubadour Arusi Santi, a welcome newcomer to Pittsburgh who plays ever-changing key roles that both help and hinder the heroine on her way.

Brian Quijada’s Somewhere Over the Border recounts a journey of nearly
3,000 miles, starting in El Salvador. (Image: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Reina is portrayed by recent Carnegie Mellon graduate Campos with youthful zeal and commanding vocals, in her first professional role. As the El Salvadoran teen, there are more than a few wrong turns in store after slipping away from an infant son and the formidable matriarch of her family – Ariana Valdes as the resolute Julia. Valdez unleashes a motherly storm of concern and faith with a powerhouse voice that drew extended applause during Friday’s opening-night performance. 

As Reina leaves a life of “work, work, work, serve, serve …” and the only home she has ever known, there is no subtlety in the tie-ins to The Wizard of Oz, 

She is joined by three comrades on her journey – a mild-mannered banana seller who dreams of studying agriculture at a university (Pittsburgher Jerreme Rodriguez, who also plays Reina’s brother), a Mexican innkeeper longing for his family in Pittsburgh (Bobby Plasencia, also Reina’s kindly employer), and a Guadalajaran nun with rock-star dreams. 

The latter, Gloria Vivica Benavides, is hilarious in that role and as Antonia, a well-meaning neighbor who ignites Reina’s dreams of escaping to America. Antonia tells stories of how her daughter has found success while raising two children on her own in California – seductive to the poor teen in a country on the brink of civil war.

The “tornado” that allows Reina to set off arrives as a windfall, via the generosity of others. All are unaware that the “all-knowing” coyote who will take her money, with the promise of getting her safely – albeit illegally – over the border, has a lot in common with a certain deceitful Wizard.

The companions, and Quijada’s engaging storytelling, provide many laughs, even as they are confronted by obstacles and unforeseen dangers.

The staging of Somewhere Over the Border, with scenic design by Chelsea Warren and direction by Laura Alcala Baker, makes the most of City’s Mainstage, with a turntable and movement representing the quartet’s great migration from Central America, through Mexico, by bus and on foot. 

Rodriguez, an accomplished dancer who has been seen on many Pittsburgh stages, is listed as dance captain in addition to his other roles. Charming as the Scarecrow character to Reina’s Dorothy, Rodriguez has been involved in the development of Somewhere since its first reading at Pittsburgh CLO’s Spark Festival, in 2019. 

Now he is a key player in a top-notch ensemble, brand-new since the musical had its live debut in an award-winning production by Chicago’s Teatro Vista, in May of 2022. The current production moves on down the road to People’s Light next year. 

Immediately after the show’s Pittsburgh opening on Friday, an illness in the cast caused cancellations of weekend performances. Here’s hoping that all involved in Somewhere Over the Border are soon back on their feet, without missing a beat. 

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Community organizations involved in events surrounding Somewhere Over the Border include the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Casa San José, the Latino Community Center, Literacy Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Somewhere Over the Border is scheduled to run through October 15 at on City Theatre’s Mainstage, South Side. For tickets, visit https://citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/87228/somewhere-over-the-border or call 412-431-CITY. 



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