Review: “Somewhere Over the Border” follows the yellow brick road too closely
Review: The mismatched tones of "Somewhere Over the Border"
Julia, a mother missing her daughter, stands in a bright spotlight against a shadowy stage. Consumed with worry and sorrow, she belts her heart out, the notes aching with her yearning. Her daughter Reina is on an uncertain journey from their small village in El Salvador to the United States, hoping to achieve the American dream; Julia is left behind with Reina’s infant son Fernando. She can only wait and sing her fears into the empty sky.
Julia’s torch songs form the emotional heart of Somewhere Over the Border, playwright and composer Brian Quijada’s new musical. The work had its world premiere at Syracuse Stage on Friday. The show – inspired by L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – tells the true story of Quijada’s mother Reina and her travels to make a new home in America. The score is a lively fusion of hip hop, Latin styles, and traditional musical theater. Although Reina’s journey must have been harrowing, the music and story are curiously sunny for the majority of the show. It’s clumsily structured in a way that blunts the emotional impact. Julia’s solo numbers, so evocative of a mother’s pain, are almost a tonal intrusion.
Reina, played by a sparkling Tanya De León, and her family work endlessly in fields and restaurants, only just scraping by. Tanya Orellana’s whimsical set design, with impressionistic white clouds scuttling across a robin’s egg blue backdrop, creates a cheery atmosphere that doesn’t gel with the subject matter. Reina craves more than the interminable toil of life in her village. She hears rumors of impending civil war, not-so-distant violence that is nonetheless kept at arm’s length by the show’s vivid details. De León portrays Reina’s naïve optimism with glistening eyes and a silvery yet commanding singing voice, as she decides to strike out for America.
Reina’s journey follows the familiar story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At each stop on Reina’s days-long bus ride to Tijuana, Mexico, she meets a colorful new character who joins her on her voyage to America–a banana farmer who desires a college degree, a drunk innkeeper whose family is far away in Pittsburgh, and a nun with rock star dreams in the states but she’s too afraid to make the trip.
Reina’s companions are amusing, but hastily sketched to follow the familiar beats of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. They lack the depth that would make their desires compelling. The reliance on that classic tale lends the show whimsy that feels at odds with the treacherous journey that immigrants make to an America that’s hostile to their entry.
The danger and stakes only become apparent in the final half hour, when Reina and company meet a legendary smuggler who takes their money and gives them a set of bare-bones instructions for crossing the border. Reina, hidden in the bed of his truck, is almost discovered at a checkpoint, and her panic, all sharp gasps of breath and frantically darting eyes, is visceral. Once she makes it through that ordeal, the smuggler abandons her, and her loneliness sinks in.
Reina realizes that America is not the dreamy land of wonder she imagined. She works as a maid for people who chide her for not learning English, and is subjected to slurs and discrimination. She cries out that the American dream which she ached for is not meant for people who look like her. This final third of the show at last pays tribute to the anguish of Reina’s story and that of so many like her, and while The Wonderful Wizard of Oz homage is charming, its fancifulness feels mismatched with such stories. The show’s optimistic tone strives to pay tribute to dreamers like Reina, sometimes at the expense of emotional honesty.
Somewhere Over the Border plays at Syracuse Stage until March 13. Buy tickets here. It will also be available for video on demand March 14 – 27. Access is $30 and includes a 48-hour window for viewing once “Start Watching” is clicked.