An ‘Oz’-inspired journey is a real life-changer in ‘Somewhere Over the Border’
Brian Quijada’s charming but uneven world-premiere musical at Teatro Vista needs just a bit more finessing.
A young farm girl dreams of finding a richer life beyond the confines of her rural existence. When a powerful storm changes her circumstances, she sets out on a journey to find a renowned power broker who can grant her wish. Along the way, she picks up three traveling companions, each with a favor to ask of this great and powerful man.
Yes, this is the familiar story of Dorothy Gale imagining the Technicolor lands “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
But, in “Somewhere Over the Border,” the charming if uneven new musical that opened Thursday night in a world-premiere production by Chicago’s Teatro Vista, it’s also the story of Reina, a young mother in 1970s El Salvador, and the lengths to which she’s driven by the promise of a better life in the United States.
When: Through June 12
Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd.
Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with no intermission
Writer, composer and actor Brian Quijada, the real-life Reina’s youngest son, won a Jeff Award for his autobiographical solo performance “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?,” first produced by Teatro Vista in 2016. In that dynamic, music-driven piece, he recounted a childhood in various Chicago suburbs, seeking his place in the world as a first-generation child of Salvadoran immigrants.
Here, Quijada turns the spotlight on his mother, telling the story of how and why she came to the United States, leaving behind an infant son — Quijada’s half-brother, Fernando — with the hope that he could one day follow her to a new home in America.
And, yes, “The Wizard of Oz” is an inspiration — not for Reina’s decision but for her son’s retelling of it. The MGM film became a favorite of his mom’s to watch with her kids, and so Quijada has decided to drape the story of his mother’s migration very loosely over the frame of L. Frank Baum’s classic story.
Quijada’s fictionalized version of Reina (appealingly played by operatically trained newcomer Gabriela Moscoso) is dressed in pigtails tied with blue ribbon. Scenic designer Yvonne Miranda provides a circular thrust stage painted with yellow bricks.
The tornado, in this instance, is metaphorical: a “storm of events” that enables Reina to embark on the difficult and costly trip, leaving her baby and a note for her stern, practical mother (Claudia Quesada).
Liviu Pasare’s video projections, which do much of the scene-setting in director Denise Yvette Serna’s staging, provide twister imagery in case anyone has missed the connection.
Reina sets off to meet “El Gran Coyote del Tijuana,” a wizard at facilitating border crossings who can put her on the path to “the majestic green.” You know, a green card.
On her journey, she meets three companions who end up joining her quest. Cruz (Tommy Rivera-Vega), a Guatemalan banana farmer, wants to pursue higher education. Silvano (Andrés Enriquez), a heavy-drinking innkeeper in Tapachula, Mexico, is nursing a broken heart over his wife and kids going to America without him. And Leona (Amanda Raquel Martinez), a quirky nun at a convent in Guadalajara, has never mustered the courage to pursue her fantasy of becoming a rock star in the United States.
The actors’ comic portrayals of these scarecrow, tin man and lion stand-ins are multilayered delights, as are the distinct and defining signature songs Quijada has written for them.
And Quijada is a charismatic presence, narrating the action and sitting in on guitar with the band in the center of the yellow-brick ring.
But much of Quijada’s score and script are, at this point in this new show’s life, a bit too repetitive. While the songs vary in genre and mood, he leans on a few musical motifs too frequently.
And the Oz of it all just takes a bit too long to show up. It’s important to establish Reina’s situation in El Salvador, but the opening sequence drags. By the time she starts her journey, we’re about 45 minutes into a nearly two-hour, intermissionless show.
Quijada also could trim the scenes after Reina makes it across the border, which feel like a very long wind-down.
There’s a lot of wonderful already here. A little narrative rebalancing could make it really whiz.