A Boy's Life

Eleven-year-old Miguel knows all too well that his journey into manhood will begin only when his father takes him on the family's annual sheep-herding trip to the Sangre de Cristo mountains. When the crucial decision day arrives, though, Papa says Miguel must remain behind, forcing the disappointed youth to endure a summer of menial household chores. Even worse, as far as Miguel is concerned, is the agony of wondering whether anyone in the universe understands what it's like to feel like an adult and be treated like a child.

Judging by the reactions of teens and preteens attending a recent performance of ...and now Miguel, the young man isn't alone. Hushed silence greeted the leading character when he crooned, "Grownups can do whatever they want, but for me, life is different." And not a soul looked bored when Miguel offered the refrain, "I can't express the feelings in my heart that come easily/Being Miguel is not easy to be."

As complicated as the young man's dilemma is, the joint production between Denver's El Centro Su Teatro and the Arvada Center is anything but angst-ridden. On the strength of Tony Garcia's astute direction, a host of playful performances and some magical design choices -- including some Blumenschein-like backdrops painted by Carlos Frésquez, a local artist -- Jim Hughes and Will Graveman's musical proves a lighthearted, sometimes poignant tale. (It's recommended for students in grades three through nine but has just as much to say to older siblings, parents and teachers.)

Based on Joseph Krumgold's 1954 novel of the same name, the story, set in New Mexico during the days of the Korean conflict, begins with an intriguing dream sequence in which four brightly costumed spirit figures dance at the edge of a sunburst-like drawing. The remainder of the tale deals with familiar rites of passage. As his older relatives hum and sing in the background, we learn of Miguel's desires and fears: His dad has a hard time listening to him, his best friend is a gangly goofball, and his older brother is caught in a tug of war between his love life and the local draft board. While the dialogue highlights the importance of communication between parents and children, the larger message is one of familial and cultural respect -- a combination that Garcia and company convey with tender humor.

Actor Amadeo Miera manages to make Miguel's impetuosity look like curiosity, and vice versa. A prodigiously talented performer, Miera easily handles a couple of solos that require him to glide into a falsetto range, and, while loading a few bundles of wool into storage, episodes that test his skills as a physical comedian.

Hugo Carbajal amuses as a food-filching priest and, later, as Johnny, a local sheep-shearer who does a fantastic dance with Miguel atop a narrow kitchen table. Manuel Roybal, Sr. delights as Miguel's guitar-picking, high-stepping grandpa, coaxing laughter from the audience one minute and sober reflection the next. As Miguel's father, Phillip A. Luna is by turns dismissive of, preoccupied by and concerned for his son's eagerness to join the ranks of the sheepherders. Always, though, you sense Papa trying to make the decisions that will best serve Miguel in the long run. Joseph Norton and Liz Randall are appealing as a couple in love; Randall, in particular, has a beautifully clear singing voice and a relaxed stage presence. Christian Martinez is, charmingly enough, all flailing arms and dorky guffaws as Miguel's pal Jubi. And Jaime Lujan, Valerie Castillo and Alma Victoria Arenda lend wonderful nuances to the women who look out for Miguel.

It's worth remembering that we've all been forced to take stock lately of how we're treating each other and raising the next generation. How, the unceasing question goes, can we avoid future tragedies? Plays aren't the only answer, of course, but in the space of an hour or so, ...and now Miguel illustrates -- without preaching, politicizing or blathering -- that peace and harmony come only with tolerance and respect. Together, El Centro Su Teatro and the Arvada Center -- perhaps as unlikely a theatrical pairing as one might have previously imagined -- triumph in driving that message home.

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Jim Lillie