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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Selena Maria Sings
Childsplay
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Crimes of the Heart, Mary Poppins, Radium Girls and The Rocky Horror Show


Kariana Sanchez and Michael Salinas
Photo by Tim Trumbule
For more than 40 years, Childsplay has presented family plays that are comical while also incorporating elements that are educational and fun. That combination provides a good introduction to live performances for young theatregoers. They've also presented shows that touch upon serious subjects as a way to introduce children to the realities of the world. Their world premiere production of Selena Maria Sings focuses on the impact the death of a boy has on his mother and sister and does so in a serious but uplifting way while also never talking down to any young audience members. With a wonderful cast and excellent creative elements, Selena Maria Sings makes for a welcome addition to a long list of exceptional plays that Childsplay has premiered.

Thirteen-year-old Selena Maria and her mother have recently left their home in Arizona and moved in with her aunt and cousin in Corpus Christi, Texas. After her brother Rudy was killed in a hit and run accident, Selena Maria's mother was so depressed that she lost her job and their apartment and sold practically everything not essential before they left town. Selena Maria's mother named her after Selena Quintanilla, queen of the Tejano music scene, and claims that she's Selena's #1 fan. Selena Maria has a passion for music, but not the kind of music Selena Quintanilla was famous for. As she struggles to find a way to connect to her mother while dealing with life in a brand-new school where she feels like an outcast, Selina Maria has to learn that sometimes you need to be yourself to find strength and your own voice.

There have been dozens of plays about the effect that death has on a family, so there isn't much here that we haven't seen before, but playwright Miriam Gonzales finds a new way to depict how to deal with loss, and the struggles that are faced by different family members when a young sibling or son is killed, by using music as a bridge that connects people. Gonzales also uses the message of a famous figure to provide a theme we can all relate to. Here that message from Selena Quintanilla is "the impossible is always possible," which is how Selena Maria and her mother are able to deal with what they believe is the impossibility of ever getting over their loss and their mutual suffering, and also how Selena Maria finds a way to have the strength to perform the type of music she loves. That's also a sweet lesson for anyone in the audience, no matter their age, to always remember. Gonzales' characters are realistic and the situations she presents are truthful. There are also a few short songs in the show that are a fun mix of Indie, hip-hop, rap, and Latina music written by Daniel French with Gonzales contributing the lyrics.

Director Melissa Crespo ensures the serious nature of the play isn't shortchanged but also that the funny moments are organic to the plot. Her cast all create realistic characters and relationships. As Selena Maria, Kariana Sanchez evokes youthful enthusiasm while also beautifully expressing the love she feels for her brother and the confusion she has in trying to navigate around her strained relationship with her mother. Andrea Morales does a wonderful job depicting Selena's mother, who blames herself for her son's death since she didn't pick him up from practice so he had to walk home, which is when he was hit by a car and killed. Morales instantly gets across the pain, depression and confusion of a woman who doesn't quite know how to go on with her life.

Sedona Valdez is a ball of fire as Selena Maria's cousin Sissy. Valdez brings joy and happiness to every scene she's in and makes Sissy the kind of kooky, fun-loving teenager anyone would want for a friend. Celena Vera Morgan plays several roles with ease, including the amiable Aunt Vicky and the mean bully at Selena Maria's new school. Michael Salinas is touching as Rudy, charming as the tamale loving, stray dog Herman, and humorous as a minion of the school bully.

The creative elements are top notch. Brunella Provvidente's effective set design uses a turntable to quickly move us from one location to the next. The projections by Dallas Nichols, which include some imaginative, moving video elements, are excellent. Addy Diaz's costumes are character specific and fun, and the beautiful lighting by Daniel Davisson helps to depict the various times of day in the show. Douglas Clarke's puppet design for Herman is superb.

Selena Maria Sings touches upon many relatable topics, such as the struggle to live up to a parent's expectations while also the understanding that you need to be who you are and not what other people expect you to be. While many other plays, TV shows, and films have dealt with loss and what people go through in their struggle to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, this play is a good introduction to the topic for younger teens. It's also a wonderful story that shows how someone's passion can help them overcome loss, reconnect with a family member, and have the strength to simply be themself.

Selena Maria Sings runs through October 31, 2021, at Childsplay, Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe St., Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.childsplayaz.org or by calling the Herberger Box Office 602-254-7399.

Book and Lyrics by Miriam Gonzales
Composer Daniel French
Directed by Melissa Crespo
Assistant Director: Natalie Payán
Dramaturg: Jenny Millinger
Music Director: Michelle Chin
Costume Design: Addy Diaz
Lighting Design: Daniel Davisson
Projection Design: Dallas Nichols
Scenic Designer: Brunella Provvidente
Sound Design: Esteban Armenta Jr.
Puppet Design: Douglas Clarke
Stage Manager: Kody Hernandez

Cast:
Felly/Mrs. Coleman: Andrea Morales
Selena Maria: Kariana Sanchez
Vicky/Olga/Moon Goddess: Celena Vera Morgan
Rudy/Herman/Minion: Michael Salinas
Cissy: Sedona Valdez


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