The first hint of the show were the silhouettes of the band members entering the back corner of the stage, nimbly tucking themselves into the arrangement of musical instruments already set up. The house lights dimmed and the stage lights faded on, lighting up the fanciful skeleton makeup that adorned the faces of the band and every cast member. Excitement already began to bubble up amidst the audience members, from elementary school kids to older adults. All have gathered to celebrate the Day of the Dead through the show Sugar Skull! A Día de los Muertos Musical Adventure at Tacoma Arts Live; a story described by Peter Bogdanos, the show’s producer, as “perfectly fitting for a varied audience.”
The play began by introducing us to Sugar Skull, a skeleton made of sugar with a captivating and energetic personality who watched along with the rest of us as the second protagonist, Vita Flores, wandered on stage, very much caught up in the music playing from her headphones. She halfheartedly rummaged with an odd photo or two upon the ofrenda (an altar set up for deceased relatives) before muttering about the absurdity of a display for the dead. This triggered a conflict between the apathetic teen and Sugar Skull, who, in his opening remarks, expressed admiration for the tradition.
Upon meeting Sugar Skull, Vita and her newfound partner travelled to the Land of the Dead, where Vita learned to value her culture and the beauty of life. It is there that they discovered a host of characters, all drawn from traditional legends told to youth in Mexico during the Day of the Dead. Through each encounter, Vita remembered more and more of her grandmother, who the ofrenda is dedicated to. This adventure showed the importance of upholding traditions.
Additionally, each character in the show performed their own dance, displaying different facets of Mexican culture. Through this show, these bits of culture were passed down to the young audience to be remembered for another generation, thus not only sharing a message of the importance of passing on traditions, but literally doing so. All of this was underscored with live music that involved not only a variety of musical instruments, but also musical styles.
The choice to display this aspect of Mexican tradition through a musical was purposeful. As Bogdanos shared, the format “really helps to tell the story and bring the story to life.” The wide variety of music styles is also important to Bogdanos, who wanted to emphasize that “there [is] lots of different music in Mexico that aren’t just mariachi.” Bogdanos made it a priority to make that an important element of the show. This unique use of live music in a work of theater portraying Mexican culture truly brings this musical to a new level. The combination of traditional music, played live, in addition to the beautiful dancing created a powerful, artful demonstration that gave the audience a first hand experience of these traditions. Not only was the audience shown the intricacies of Mexican culture through real tradition that goes beyond the mariachi stereotype, but we witnessed it through the vibrant music and impressive dancing of a predominantly-Mexican cast.
The musical’s vibrancy is a product of the knowledge gained by the producer and cast in a trip throughout Mexico during the celebration of the Day of the Dead. This first-hand experience is consistently displayed in the stories from Mexican culture, the varying costumes of the dancers, and the actual dancing styles and the songs sung by the band and the protagonists.
Bogdanos truly encompassed this musical when he described it as, “very heartfelt, fun [and] for everybody, very upbeat and intelligent.” Stressing the musical’s relevance for all audiences, Bogdanos made it clear that it will “touch people from any background.” As long as you come with curiosity and an open heart, Tacoma Arts Live’s Sugar Skull: A Día de Los Muertos Musical Adventure will reveal a bigger picture of Mexican culture through the story of a girl who goes on a magical journey to recover and remember her family's traditions.