Cesar and Ruben, The Cesar Chavez Story
a kate west review
written and directed by Ed Begley, Jr.
El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood
call (818) 508-0281
Running March 14 through May 11, 2003
I recently had the distinct pleasure of attending Ed Begley Jr.'s directorial debut at the El Portal in trendy "No-Ho"( a delightfully artsy section of North Hollywood Ca) called, "CESAR AND RUBEN. This involiving musical is the story of Cesar Chavez, celebrated champion and founder of the United Farm Workers of America and Ruben Salazar, the legendary Los Angeles Times reporter, who chronicled Chavez’ fabled activism .Ed Begley states in the program notes that he knew Chavez personally and was even a pall bearer at his funeral so in my book he’s an excellent choice to execute this magical vision of Chavez’ life. And this production is no mere historical retelling of famous events - it is a musical inspired by Chavez himself, who dearly loved all kinds of music. Although I think original music may have helped to further along the plot even more, the existing score worked well in the context of the play. Begley chose appropriates pieces such as Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” Sting’s “Fragile” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero,” among others, to challenge his actors’ vocal abilities and to connect the audience of the present with the visionaries of the past.
We begin with Cesar (Roberto Alcaraz) and Ruben (Tony D’Arc) meeting in “heaven” in the form of a coffee-shop juke box-joint. Ruben is there to guide Cesar through his past, cleverly activating key moments by playing juke box numbers. By the way, the juke box thing only happens a few times in the beginning and then you really don’t see it anymore. It’s funny and it works but I could see growing tired of the joke. So with the help of Ruben and fascinating real-life images from Chavez’ life projected on the back wall (Special Effects by Stephan Szpak-Fleet), Cesar watches his life unfold: as a child migrating to the states, experiencing racial hatred early on, being hired as a laborer, meeting his wife and then after meeting Fred Ross (Charles Dennis), the organizer for the Community Service Organization, finally resolving to take matters in his own hands and officially becoming a union activist. In the course of aiding Cesar, Ruben finds himself reconciled to painful memories as well. The events are in turn, charming, entertaining and poignant, such as one humorous scene where Chavez’ numerous children are baptized. There are many gorgeous elaborate musical numbers set to a variety of American and Mexican “pop music” pieces. Kudos to Choreographer Roman Vasquez!
The actors are, for the most part, quite wonderful and, for those familiar with the real-life persons, many of them bear an amazing resemblance to the characters they portray. Shannon Stoeke, especially, does a wonderful, life-like impersonation of Bobby Kennedy. Roberto Alcaraz is a fresh, spirited, impassionate Cesar Chavez and Tony D’Arc is a personable, effective and doomed Ruben Salazar. Danielle Barbosa paints a vivid and passionate portrait of Dolores Huerta, Chavez’ longtime co-champion. The other women, Marta Dubois as Helen Chavez and Jeanine Pacheco as his young mother, are also strong. A special delight is Edward Laurence Albert (actor Eddie Albert’s son) as Naylor, the wickedly deceptive Ranch Boss, who torments Chavez throughout the play, singing and dancing his way into classic villain history.
CESAR AND RUBEN was overall a delight - a very involving, entertaining and a fairly accurate outline of the life of Cesar Chavez. I believe that this production is on its way to becoming a profound homage to a great man who changed the lives of the forgotten migrant workers. It only lacks a well-defined ending scene (and maybe some original music). Nonetheless, Ed Begley, Jr., with his political beliefs and passion about the environment is the perfect spokesperson, (please note that that all programs are printed on 100% recycled paper). Thank you, Ed. And yes, Si, se puede!
The Words of Cesar Chavez
Cesar and Ruben, The Cesar Chavez Story