It’s not often that a musical can entertain, inspire, and educate, but Cesar and
Ruben is just such a musical.  Writer, director, costar Ed Begley has taken a page
out of recent California history and fashioned one of the most moving pieces of
theater I’ve seen.

Cesar and Ruben is the story of Cesar Chavez, Mexican American farm worker,
labor leader, and civil rights activist. As the play begins, Chavez has died and
somewhere (heaven with a jukebox?) he meets Ruben Salazar, the Mexican-
American news reporter killed by the police in 1970, who takes him back on a
journey through his life.  (In an amusing moment, a slightly disappointed Chavez
asks Ruben, “Why you?  Why not Bobby Kennedy?”)

We meet Chavez as a youth, encountering anti-Mexican prejudice wherever he
goes.  (At the movies, he is told he must move to the Mexican section of the
theater.)  He falls in love, marries Helen Fabela, and they have eight children in
rapid order (a very funny sequence). Chavez soon becomes involved in the
plight of exploited farm workers, leading to the “No Uvas” (No Grapes) boycott.
Cesar and Ruben charts the ups and downs of Chavez’ life, in biopic fashion.

What makes Cesar and Ruben come alive is not the book, which doesn’t have
time to delve too deeply into Chavez’ life and psyche, but the superb
performances and the spot-on choice of songs.

Danny Bolero IS Chavez, in a performance rich in feeling and sprinkled with
humor. He is matched by the beautiful Chrissy Guerrero, touching in the role of
Helen. The two possess absolutely gorgeous voices, and their love duet Nunca
Te Olvidaré (I’ll Never Forget You) is a tear-jerker extraordinaire, not once but
twice. Other standouts in the cast include sassy Sandra Purpurro as NFWA co-
founder Dolores Huerta, dynamic Gustavo Rex as the bigoted farm boss Naylor
(he tells workers spraying poison on the grapes that it’s “medicine”), Begley and
his wife Rachelle in a variety of roles, and Eli Vargas, who as young Cesar
possesses the voice of an angel. Dan Domenech, the charismatic young costar
of Sister Act and Altar Boyz, once again stands out in a number of supporting

In the performance I attended, understudy Benjamin Perez, usually in the
ensemble, did fine work as Ruben Salazar, who tells Cesar he is there to “help you
see the things you need to remember.”  Perez is a very good actor, with the
commanding presence and strong voice the role requires.

The other members of the outstanding cast do passionate and inspired work:
Shane Arenal, Danielle Barbosa, Al Coronel, Claudia Dolph (of What’s My Line On
Stage), Josette Owens, Mario Rocha, assistant choreographer Karrisa Thomas,
Charles Woodruff(great Bobby Kennedy imitation), and Frankie Anne (the
choreographer going on as an understudy).

One of the smartest decisions made by Begley was to stick to mostly well known
songs by famed performers, thus we recognize and have an immediate
emotional response to such tunes as Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up, Sting’s Fields
of Gold, Enrique Iglesias’ Heroe, the hip-hop beats of Control Machete’s Si Señor,
and additional songs by Ruben Blades, Santana, David Crosby, and numerous
Latin American songwriters.  Cuando cantan en español, the English lyrics are
projected on a large screen above the stage, which is also used to show actual
photographs of Cesar and his family and newsreel scenes from his life (including
moving footage of his funeral).

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 2, 2007

Comments are closed.