Cesar and Ruben

Ed Begley Jr.'s 'Cesar and Ruben,' a play with music, is a respectful and warm tribute to the life and work of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez

Arts Review

Cesar and Ruben

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through Oct. 9

It should be a cliché by now, and yet it was a joy to see a brown actor playing a brown person who wasn't a thug. Indeed, Cesar and Ruben, a play with music, written and co-directed by TV and film actor Ed Begley Jr., is a respectful and warm tribute to the life and work of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez.

Begley takes a practical approach to telling Chavez's story. He calls up another figure in Mexican-American history, Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, to help Chavez "cross over" from our world to the afterlife. Having just died in his sleep, Chavez is confused. Already dead, Salazar prompts him to revisit key moments from his past with journalistic persistence. To his credit, Begley's script never feels like a force-fed history lesson. Humor and attention to intimate details provide public and private perspectives of Chavez, humanizing instead of deifying him – always a danger in biographies of historical figures.

Begley's script flows briskly. However, just when the narrative gains momentum, one of 17 musical numbers disrupts the action. Begley says he collected the mostly contemporary songs as he was formulating the play. Obviously, the songs were useful signposts, but like scaffolds at a construction site, they are now mostly dispensable (or at least relegated to background music). That said, there are some memorable musical moments. Sting's "Fields of Gold" is a lovely way to convey the courtship of Chavez and wife Helen. And it's always a treat to hear the toe-tapping "Corrido de Dolores Huerta." (Begley earns props for giving Huerta due respect for her important role in the formation of the United Farm Workers.) However, in this Mary Moody Northen Theatre production, it was the traditional "El Sol Que Tu Eres," tenderly sung a cappella by imported Equity actor Danny Bolero as Chavez and Lanella Marie Zotter as Chavez's mother, Juana, that brought that rare, hair-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck magic to the stage. If there was a dry eye in the house, it was not mine.

Bolero and Zotter are by far the most accomplished vocalists of the large ensemble. Although most singers are miked and the fivepiece orchestra is offstage, the sound quality in the intimate Mary Moody Northen Theatre is curiously poor during musical numbers, leaving some vocals sounding muddy. But even a decent sound system cannot correct eye-squinting flat notes, blanched beyond reach and most obvious in solos.

The interplay between Bolero's Cesar and Mical Trejo's Ruben is as comfortable as that of old friends. Not seeing Ruben as much as Cesar was surprising given the show's title, and Trejo's easygoing performance made you miss him when he wasn't onstage. The charismatic Bolero gives a nuanced performance of Chavez as an elder and then a determined young man. In supporting roles, Titos Menchaca is purely despicable as Naylor (a grower), and Amparo Garcia-Crow charms by capturing some of Dolores Huerta's recognizable mannerisms.

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Cesar and Ruben, Ed Begley Jr., United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, Danny Bolero, Los Angeles Times, Ruben Salazar, Dolores Huerta, Lanella Marie Zotter, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, El Sol Que Tu Eres, Sting, Fields of Gold, Corrido de Dolores Huerta, Mical Trejo, Titos Menchaca, Amparo Garcia Crow

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