Geva's 'Somewhere Over the Border' puts 'Wizard of Oz' spin on immigration 

click to enlarge Bobby Plasencia, Tanya De León, Robert Ariza perform in "Somewhere Over the Border" at Syracuse Stage. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • Bobby Plasencia, Tanya De León, Robert Ariza perform in "Somewhere Over the Border" at Syracuse Stage.
There’s no place like home – but where do you go when home is no longer safe?

“Somewhere Over the Border,” a co-production of Geva Theatre Center, Syracuse Stage, and Chicago’s Teatro Vista (Theatre with a View), marks the second
Geva production written by Brian Quijada after last season’s solo hip-hop show “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?”

The world premiere run in upstate New York began Feb. 23 at Syracuse Stage, where it ran until March 13. The production continues in person at Geva Theatre Center from March 30 through April 24.

With his new musical, Quijada tells the true story of his mother’s journey from El Salvador to America in 1978, but adapts it to the story of “The Wizard of Oz.” Think “The Wiz” and its all-Black cast, but with Latino immigrants.

For those familiar with “The Wizard of Oz” movie, much of the enjoyment of this charming production — directed by Rebecca Martínez — comes from seeing how everything from the flying monkeys to the poppy fields gets reimagined in a Latin American landscape.

The savior Reina seeks is not the Wizard, but El Gran Coyote de Tijuana, who can help her get to America. Reina is presented as an “everyday princess,” whom Tanya De León portrays convincingly with her open, expressive face and Disney-princess voice. She wears a pale blue skirt and white blouse, a clever nod by costume designer Asa Benally to Judy Garland’s iconic dress.

Reina’s first friend on the way is not a scarecrow, but a farmer who wants an education, played with charisma by Robert Ariza.

Using an iconic American movie as a lens allows Quijada to make his mother’s story familiar and palatable to audiences who might otherwise have trouble seeing themselves in a teenage refugee’s story. The opening number “Everyday Towns” urges audiences to see that “the world is filled with dreamers, dreamers like me and you.”

The music is enjoyable, gently mixing influences from cumbia, rap, hip-hop, and Disney musicals. With the exception of the upbeat “Ride Up the Road,” a repeated refrain reminiscent of “Ease On Down the Road” from “The Wiz,” most of these songs aren’t particularly catchy or distinctive, but they’re performed with gusto by a tight band and stellar cast. Francisca Muñoz, as Reina’s mother, is a vocal powerhouse.
click to enlarge Francisca Muñoz in "Somewhere Over the Border." - PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • Francisca Muñoz in "Somewhere Over the Border."
The feel-good music softens some of the more horrific moments in Reina’s life. For instance, an early number in the show, “The Tornado,” uses a storm metaphor as a stand-in for the civil unrest that made Reina’s hometown unlivable for her. The song acknowledges that “things are not okay” but allows the audience to fill in the blanks.

I appreciate that the musical avoids falling into the trap of trauma porn, exploiting a marginalized group’s pain for entertainment. The characters’ pain is acknowledged, but the show also gives them moments of joy, friendship, and hope.

Rather than focusing on gritty details, the play presents itself as a larger-than-life epic adventure. Jennifer Fok’s gorgeous lighting design gives the stage a fantastical feel, especially with the multicolored chaos during the number “Leona,” sung by a nun who wants to be a rock star but can’t summon the courage.
click to enlarge Robert Ariza, Tanya De León, Bobby Plasencia, and Gloria Vivica Benavides in "Somewhere Over the Border." - PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY MIKE DAVIS
  • Robert Ariza, Tanya De León, Bobby Plasencia, and Gloria Vivica Benavides in "Somewhere Over the Border."
It was refreshing to see Reina, a Salvadorian teen mother, get to live out an archetypal fairy tale, though disappointing that her hopes for America rarely get more specific than a place where “it seems like life is endless” and “the schools are better / the kids are happy.”

While hinting at messy emotions in Reina’s choice to leave — particularly in a moving scene between Reina and her mother, who stayed in El Salvador to raise Reina’s son — the show hews closely to “The Wizard of Oz” through its mostly hopeful and bittersweet ending.

The Emerald City — or in this case, the Green Card — is a glamorous but ultimately empty illusion, and Reina must face the harsh realities of her new home in order to reunite with her son.

This musical acknowledges that Reina’s story is one of many, and serves as an important reminder that she was relatively lucky. As wars and climate catastrophe increase, stories that humanize and celebrate refugees are a much-welcome antidote to racism and fear-mongering.

“Somewhere Over the Border” is a gentle and sweet addition to this canon, brought to life by a wonderful cast and band.

Geva Theatre Center presents “Somewhere Over the Border” now through April 24 at Geva’s Wilson Stage, 75 Woodbury Blvd. 232-4382. $25 to $59. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test, plus masking, is required. gevatheatre.org.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at [email protected].
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