Musical numbers:”Vamos Todos a Belen,””Vamos a Pie,””Down and Out on Christmas Eve,””Este Canto Mio,””Quieres Chocolate?,””Lovin’ Santa,””Searching, “”Christmas Memories of Home,””Dirge,””Corridio de Los Muertos,”‘Sacred Child,” Finale.
Entrusting its Christmas wish list to rising playwright Octavio Solis (“Santos & Santos”) this year, San Jose Rep received the kind of seasonal gift any theater would die for:”La Posada Magica” is witty, touching, musical, a surprise package suitable for viewers of all ages and cultures. Though Norma Saldivar’s premiere staging will prove hard to top, the material could easily translate to smaller companies’ resources. This has all the earmarks of a holiday perennial.
Set in present-day San Jose, the deceptively simple story centers on ninth-grader Gracie (Dena Martinez). Christmas Eve finds her in a far from celebratory mood, still anguished after the recent death of a sickly baby brother. She’s in no state to join her parents at church. The arrival of a neighborhood posada — the traditional door-to-door procession that collects donations for the poor while re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s pre-miracle journey — only exacerbates her pique. Yet on a dare, Gracie joins up.
Her “Christmas spirit,” however, is pure spite. Having prayed and lit candles at length to no avail on her late sib’s behalf, she now sets about souring the group’s genial mood. After blowing out the last posada wick, Gracie is plunged Orpheus-like into a nether world where menacing tricksters prey upon her lapsed faith. Spiritual renewal, a real-world birth and the original Nativity scene entwine at the close of Solis’ multilayered scenario.
Not so much a conventional musical as the duly billed “Christmas play with music” whose charming songs do not require (or get) perfectly polished music-theater voices, “La Posada Magica” juggles numerous elements to enchanting effect. As with so many classic children’s stories, this original one is rooted in terrible sorrow. Gracie has left innocence behind too early; she requires much adult understanding and perhaps a little divine intervention to regain essential hope. Salvidar’s charmed production lends that process considerable poignancy. But no comic or fantastical opportunity is bypassed en route.
The stunning crime-family epic “Santos” and convulsive adult chamber drama “Prospect” demonstrated Solis’ penchant for mixing mythic and rascally up-to-the-moment currents. To very different (but no less successful) ends, “Posada” deploys similar tactics.
Thus Gracie’s underworld trek consciously echoes both Latino-Christian legends and horror kidpic “Poltergeist.” The fearlessly sweet, funny text has room for a post-punk mariachi rocker (delightful Jesus Mendoza) doing his Elvis impersonation, as well as assault-rifle slapstick and angelic visitations as white as sour cream on flautas. Even the normally dreaded audience sing-alongs come off as pure joie de vivre.
San Jose Rep has engineered an all-around triumph here, one that looks gorgeous — Michelle Riel’s colorful scenic design is topped only by Lydia Tanji’s riotous costumes. Marcos Loya’s tunes (performed live by actors and musicians) mix Latin, folk and pop flavors to disarming effect, abetted by Solis’ deft lyrics.
The cast couldn’t be better, with Martinez’s stubborn, winsome heroine supported by such fellow posada travelers as charmingly offhand narrator Eduardo Robledo and hilarious chocaholic widows Wilma Bonet and Tessa Koning-Martinez. Dialogue is about 60% English, 40% Spanish. But “La Posada Magica” should easily cross any geographic, cultural or language barrier in what promises to be many future incarnations.