Every fall in central Mexico’s highland forests, monarch butterflies fly. They symbolize the end of the harvest in Indigenous Mexican communities’ agricultural cycles and the souls of ancestors during the Day of the Dead (according to the Monarch Joint Venture), and they face survival challenges on the border. So they’re a fitting metaphor for stories of Mexican culture and immigration. In Monarch: A Mexican-American Musical at Creative Cauldron, they’re “the ones who left and never returned” in a visually stunning, evocative production with strong performers and a moving message about those who came before us and those who carry on their legacy. It’s a brave new musical with potential but could be pushed toward claiming its inherent power.
With a book and lyrics by Mayu Molina Lehmann and Alfonso Molina, and music by Molina, Monarch tells the story of Luis (Marcos Salazar, with powerful physical and vocal presence), a handyman who has run a shop in the United States for 20 years, who is an undocumented immigrant. As ICE Officer Castelo (played with Javert-like thrill of the chase by high tenor José Juan Hernández) pursues him, Luis finds refuge in a church and recollects his journey to the U.S. This includes his decision to leave behind Mexico and his now-deceased wife Amanda (a touching Lizzie Bartlett, with a sparkling soprano) to rebuild after a devastating fire, without her. His first-generation, DREAMer daughter Ana (played with a sweet mix voice and vulnerability by Gretchen Midgley) grieves not knowing life with her mother but does all she can to protect them. As they join a protest advocating for DACA with Ana’s tattoo-artist activist friend Yatz (a spirited Elizabeth Hoyland), the cost of coming out of the shadows is revealed.
Theater that advocates for change in real life should capture the weight of its real-life implications. The costs to a decent living that being pursued by an ICE officer had for a “Latino hero” immigrant and his family are clear in this script. But one could wish for the scope to be narrowed to the family and Castelo. Additional characters sometimes derail us from the main story, despite vibrantly showing a variety of Hispanic immigrants.
The show also frequently says the obvious. It wasn’t written to be subtle; it was written to address these issues with the language of representation by actual Mexican artists, which is commendable. But at times, one could wish for more subtlety or complexity. Plot choices show the weight of what happens in this cruel world, but it feels overly direct. For example, both Officer Castelo and alt-right people with signs say “Go back to your country” to Luis, Ana, and their community. Is it possible to tell a compelling story of a family affected by broken immigration policies without showing blatant racism over and over again?
The most effective moments were songs that show and reflect on conflict, without fear that the audience won’t get it, including Act One’s “It’s a Matter of Time” between Luis and Castelo. Ana’s “Dreamer” in the aftermath of Castelo almost catching them features some of the most honest lyrics of the show; “Dreams of a Broken Hero” makes it clearer that Castelo was trying to follow the law and survive. The Homeless Immigrant (Alex Lopez)’s bitter “The Lucky Ones” about not getting opportunities folks like Luis did finally gives him context. And Officer Wright (Castelo’s second-in-command, portrayed by Justin P. Lopez)’s question of “Is It Right?” is the best moment of change. I wish Castelo had a song like the latter to close out his arc.
The score’s style is influenced by recitative-like musical theater and traditional Mexican musical traditions like choral huapangos, danzón, and syncopated rhythms. This mixture was seamless, thanks to orchestral motifs that established them consistently, and the dynamic work of music director Merissa Driscoll in unlocking the different vocal styles. In this production, backing tracks accompany the performers; moments where characters hold mics to elevate the energy in dance numbers are most easily audible, though everyone projects nicely.
The show’s design leans into the dreamer aspects of the story, and it’s a dream to see, especially the projections (James Morrison) and set (Margie Jervis). Hints of light are visible behind long narrow windows and prison-patterned walls that roll open and closed as actors enter and exit. When a projection of Officer Castelo’s shadow gets bigger as he speaks to the younger version of himself (Marco Mendez Romero), it’s haunting. Stunning projections of monarch butterflies in the forest and the powerful images of DACA protests, an authentic Mexican American kitchen, the church, a fire, and more expand the story in a small space.
This production takes risks and captures poignant themes throughout. The story is there, but we just barely scratch the surface. You want to know more from what you’re shown, because they’re already intriguing stories. Many folks who’d want to see this show may already know their real-life Luis, Ana, or Amanda. More is desired in the individual development of scenes and songs because characters in close-to-real situations need to be depicted with more reality. It’s what they deserve.
Running time: 90 minutes with a 10-minute intermission.
Monarch: A Mexican-American Musical plays through October 29, 2023, at Creative Cauldron, 410 South Maple Avenue, Retail 116, Falls Church, VA. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Purchase tickets ($25–$50) online.
The program for Monarch: A Mexican-American Musical is available here.
COVID Safety: Creative Cauldron is a mask-optional environment. A mask-required performance is on October 22. Creative Cauldron’s COVID-19 Theater Protocol is available here.
THE CREATIVE TEAM
Book and Lyrics by Mayu Molina Lehmann
Music, Book, and Lyrics by Alfonso Molina
Directed by Matt Conner and Mayu Molina Lehmann
Music Supervision by Alfonso Molina
Music Direction/Sound Design by Merissa Driscoll
Costume/Prop/Set Design by Margie Jervis
Stage Manager: Nicholas J. Goodman
Choreographer: Stefan Sittig
Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin
Projection Designer: James Morrison
Luis: Marcos Salazar
Officer Castelo: José Juan Hernández
Officer Wright/Ensemble: Justin P. Lopez
Ana/Ensemble: Gretchen Midgley
Amanda/Ensemble: Lizzie Bartlett
Yatz/Ensemble: Elizabeth Hoyland
Priest/Ensemble: Pat Mahoney
Neto/Homeless/Immigrant/Ensemble: Alex Lopez
Boss/Ensemble (U/S Yatz): Lenny Mendez
Chambean/Husband/Ensemble: Connor Padilla
Ensemble: Emily Flack, Marco Mendez Romero