Student-led production tackles fall of Aztec empire in original musical

Diego de Ordaz played by Pedro Cano, is exploiting/ offering a slave Malinalli to Hernan Cortez during a scene at a dress rehearsal for the musical Malinalli at UTRGV Jeffers Theatre on Tuesday April,30, 2019 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/ dlopez@themonitor.com

BY P.J. HERNANDEZ | STAFF WRITER

EDINBURG — As cast members performed their scales, warming up their vocals with each keystroke on the baby grand piano inside a practice room here, they appeared not unlike the notes dotting the measures on their sheet of music. Each one has a purpose, and together capable of creating a masterpiece.

At least this is the hope of organizers of a student-led production at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The scene — at an April 17 rehearsal for “Malinalli” in one of the practice rooms of the UTRGV’s Performing Arts Complex — depicted the preparations for an original musical at 7 p.m.  Thursday in the Albert L. Jeffers Theatre.

The performance is free for the public to attend.

Cast members have practiced together on a weekly basis since February to fine-tune not only their voices but everything that goes into a musical production. The work, written by creative writing lecturer Robert Paul Moreira and co-composed by UTRGV music senior Josiah Esquivel, is a musical rendition of the infamous tale of La Malinche and how she played a role in the falling of the Aztec empire. Moreira also composed the music, with Esquivel’s help.

However, Moreira and Esquivel are not the only ones who are running the show. Both have the help of two students — one from UTRGV and the other from South Texas College — to run the production.

The goal: aim for perfection.

“It’s OK if you mess up, you mess up, you keep going,” UTRGV theater senior Brianna Ramirez said during the practicing of a scene as she appeared unsatisfied with the result. “That’s how it’s going to be. If you’re going to sing something wrong, sing it confidently. … You can’t stop the show, it has to keep going.”

Ramirez, who is one of two student directors and is active in the university’s theater department, said this is her first time directing a “full-blown musical,” but the passion for teaching and the field is shared with Daniela Lozano, an STC drama sophomore with plans to transfer to UTRGV.

Asked about what they learned, both said the production has been an exercise in patience. The cast may consist of former and current students who are not theater majors, but Ramirez and Lozano are still intent on tightening up any loose ends through the daily practices.

“Not all of them work the same,” Ramirez said. “Some of them … you have to be more direct with them, in directing them.”

Lozano added, “For me, it’s been a learning experience being a lot more patient with people who are not theater majors. It’s a different work environment.”

Rehearsing a scene can take up to 45 minutes to an hour. However, just because the 15-member cast has a set date to meet does not mean that they can speed through practices.

Hernan Cortez gifts a a rosary to Malinalli played by Mandy Carin during a dress rehearsal of the musical Malinalli at UTRGV Jeffers Theatre on Tuesday April,30, 2019 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/ dlopez@themonitor.com

“You can’t rush perfection,” Ramirez said as her directing partner nodded in agreement.

Putting it together

It was around age 10 when Robert Moreira discovered a love for theater after witnessing his father dress up as an apostle during theatrical plays based on the Last Supper at Saint Martha’s in Huntington Park, California.

Moreira’s initial idea for “Malinalli” has been in the making since the 90s, which was before he moved to the Rio Grande Valley. While in California, he was playing guitar and writing rock songs but did no see “much out of those two on their own.” It was not until hearing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, where he truly felt inspired to look for an original story for his own musical.

The UTRGV lecturer said historically the play is about Malinalli, an indigenous woman who helped the Spaniards subdue the Aztec empire. Traditionally, she is known as La Malinche, but Moreira believes she has been somewhat maligned in history books and mischaracterized to an extent.

“The story has been told already, but a lot of people don’t know the exact history,” Moreira said. “Through the research and through my own understanding of music and lyrics and story, I was able to come up with this musical that I call ‘Malinalli.’

I want people to see her in a different light and to understand her in a different way, and to see that we are all victims of the times that we live in. And what she did, she did for specific reasons.”

It was not until 2015 when Moreira joined the Creative Writing program at UTRGV and meeting the right people when he realized that he saw that the two-act musical could be developed further.

Moreira said his strong suit is not music, but through a faculty member he was introduced to Esquivel. What started as transcribing music for the first act of the work, turned into something far greater.

“I didn’t really know how much my involvement was going to be, like at first I thought I was just going to be transcribing,” Esquivel said. “That first semester I didn’t really compose anything. I just wrote little transitions. Some of the music, it was more like individual songs. … Sometimes, it didn’t end, it didn’t flow. So, I just sort of added little things like a little guitar tapping.”

With an interest to continue his work on the second act, Esquivel applied for the Engaged Scholar Award grant in summer and fall of 2018 and was able to gain resources, such as a computer and more time to arrange the music.

He also said he wanted to challenge himself for the second act and write the music for standard Broadway orchestration. Meaning, he had spend the majority of his time listening to the tracks and translate music that was originally played on guitar to other instruments, such as percussion to help contribute in setting an indigenous tempo for the work.

Audience members can expect to hear live instrumentation for the work’s 32 songs in a night of action and musical ambition.

Christopher Trevino as Moctezuma during a scene at a dress rehearsal for the musical Malinalli at UTRGV Jeffers Theatre on Tuesday April,30, 2019 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/ dlopez@themonitor.com

Blood, sweat and tears

Cast members have made time from their busy schedules to participate in this musical, not for stardom or other riches, but for the passion that they possess for the love of theater.

Mandy Carin, a former UT Pan American (now UTRGV) biology graduate and plays the role of Malinalli, said she believes the musical is relevant to the culture of the community.

“This is like the underdog story,” Carin said. “… She saw an opportunity, acted upon it and really put herself in a place of status where … it was unheard of (for women). I want the community to connect to the history (and) relate to the struggles. I also want young girls to come and see a strong female character.”

Although passion is a driving force for some cast members, family plays a role as well.

UTRGV theater junior Alex Torres said his family is supportive of his passion for the field. With time conflicts on his hands, he said he still wants to help make something great.

“It’s not just a really great musical, it shows a lot of the history of all of us, as the people in the Valley,” Torres said. “We all have some sort of connection to this in some way or another.”

Kaitlin Moreira, an 11-year-old student at Enrique Camarena Elementary, is not only part of the cast but also supports her father’s, Robert Moreira’s, ambitions.

“He’s had this idea forever,” Moreira said. “People should come see it because we put a lot of effort into this. We just hope they enjoy it.”

Her father is on the same note and said he is indebted to all of those who have helped put the musical into a reality.

“It’s an important history. I think people should know about these characters,” Robert Moreira said. “It’s a story that is important for us to sort of think about, to contemplate — as human beings.”