The Latino Theatre Company based in Los Angeles Opens Season with the World Premiere of the Comissioned Play "Ghost Waltz"

Honoring the story of Mexican-Otomí Composer Juventino Rosas 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Quetzal Guerrero, Nathalie Peña-Comas, and Ric’key Pageot. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

I cannot say enough times how amazing it is to learn about history through theatre. Especially when it is an eye-opening fact like a world-wide famous musical composition attributed to the wrong composer. That is the subject matter of Ghost Waltz, a play by Oliver Mayer that came as a commission from the Los Angeles-based Latino Theatre Company and developed in the company’s Circle of Imaginistas, a commission-oriented writing circle aimed at producing new, relevant plays from both established and early/mid-career Latin American voices that address important issues of the times.

In this world premiere, the plot circles around Juventino Rosas, an Otomí-Mexican composer/violinist responsible for writing the waltz Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves), a waltz often incorrectly attributed to Austrian composer Johann Strauss. In the play we see Juventino (Quetzal Guerrero) playing the violin with his dad Don Jesus, portrayed by actor and composer Eduardo Robledo. They joke around about white people and racism towards Mexicans, especially indigenous Mexicans with darker skin. 

Monte Escalante. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

Mayer mixes real-life facts into fictional and sometimes with realismo mágico and Día de Muertos as things seem to happen chronologically but not, at the same time, and when there is a death, the characters shift to a white-painted face with dark circles around the eyes like a Catrina. Juventino trains at the Mexican conservatory with Jewish-Austrian immigrant and music teacher, Professor Zeiss (played by Cástulo Guerra) who secretly has Juventino come into the conservatory through the back door due to not being allowed because of his origin. At the conservatory, Juventino meets the "Mexican Nightingale", Ángela Peralta, who immediately rejects him alluding too to his origin and stature -in her eyes of course-. The playwright, in this mixture of facts and fiction, also points out the inner racism in the Mexican culture, something that is very real, unfortunately. As he continues his journey, Rosas comes across Creole clairvoyant, Marie Leveau (Monte Escalante) who is between planes and advices Juventino who enlists in the military and lands in New Orleans, meeting the "King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin (Ric’key Pageot). They then embark on a work-music venture along with Joplin's partner Bethena (Ariel Brown). At this point, both Don Jesus and Professor Zeiss are dead and watching over the violinist's current journey that aside from beautiful music and profitable compositions, is being surrounded by alcohol and betrayal.

Juventino Rosas died in real life in Cuba. In the play, he lands there and sees Ángela again while now deceased. Peralta has a confession delivered tenderly by Nathalie-Peña Comas, that is as resonating as fitting to the plot unlike some of the events shown. The stage setting is framed well under the set, lights, costumes, and projections designed by Cameron Jaye Mock and Emily Anne McDonald using a semi-imperial stairway that to me, reflected both opera houses and Mexican pyramids. Interpretation is part of the beauty of theatre... there is a big rose up in the frame of the stage with the inscriptions Ars Longa Vita Brevis which's literal translation is "art is long, life is short". Another fitting hit to the story as Juventino died at the tender age of 26. The costume design also combines well with the process, having the live musicians located on stage left, along with Juventino and Don Jesus wearing huaraches, guayaberas, and embroidered shirts that made both the impression and the statement. Nathan Davis's sound design also makes an impression while illustrating the musical beats that go along the stages of the story accompanied by Alberto López's musical direction.

Bass player Juan Perez and music director Alberto López. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography
The cast directed by Alberto Barbosa makes a good ensemble that mostly hits all the bytes. There are many pieces to juggle in this play and Barbosa's direction aims to harmonize it all. Quetzal Guerrero, having a strong stage presence and good interpretation with solid intention, is a beautiful violinist too as he plays with a moving feeling. (going up and down those long stairways while playing, was impressive too). Another beautiful initiative included a song composed by Guerrero called "Poema Otomí" and "Viva Otomí" with words and music by Eduardo Robledo who is endearing and funny as Don Jesus. His role would definitely benefit from being more immersed in the story. Same for Cástulo Guerra as Professor Zeiss who communicates the love for music and the struggle to be accepted. Ric’key Pageot has a hefty music and composition history that balanced his histrionic debut with this play. Ariel Brown as Bethena moves with grace throughout the stage showing her dancer background. Even though the character of the Creole clairvoyant, Marie Leveau is shoehorned in the story, Monte Escalante does a good job portraying the intention and the presence. 

It is understandable and commendable what Oliver Mayer is trying to do with this play. I saw it during previews and the common thread needs more cohesion as things happen because the follow-through is brittle. It was mentioned that an intermission was being considered. The show premieres today and an intermission would be a good idea while considering cohesion and justification for the characters. Still, this is a good story that needs to live on to be told more and more contributing to justice and awareness of Juventino's story. There is a film with Mexican cinema star Pedro Infante who plays Juventino. It might be a good pre-game before seeing this show that is currently playing at The Los Angeles Theatre Center until June 2. For more information on show days and ticket prices please click here

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