Now under the artistic direction of Timothy Nelson, the In Series, D.C.’s inventive, itinerant opera company, has adapted the classic zarzuela “La verbena de la Paloma,” setting it on the Mexican border in Tijuana.
As translated and expanded by Anna Deeny Morales, who teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies, scored by Berklee College of Music graduate Ulises Eliseo and directed by Nick Olcott, who frequently directs In Series and Opera Lafayette productions, the show is an ambitious and entertaining musical concoction — updated with a layer of unpleasant reality.
Unlike the original one-act operetta of 1894, depicting a Madrid neighborhood during an August festival dedicated to the Virgin of Solitude, “La Paloma at the Wall” takes place at the slatted wall at Friendship Park/Parque de la Amistad between San Diego and Tijuana — where family members are allowed to communicate across the border during certain weekend hours — and in a beachfront Tijuana bar.
The basic zarzuela plot of an elderly man pursuing two young women who is foiled by the boyfriend of one of them, a musical comedy of manners with roots in the Book of Daniel’s tale of “Susanna and the Elders,” is retained. However, the #MeToo theme is made explicit and interwoven with the story of a Guatemalan woman (here called Paloma) separated from her daughter at the border, complete with references to child trafficking.
Attempting this type of reframing, at Nelson’s suggestion, took cojones; remarkably, for the most part it comes off, and the show — with a large cast (14 plus four dancers from Corazón Folklórico DC), never far from breaking out in song and dance — rarely flags.
The new score combines original music, melodies from “La verbena de la Paloma” and traditional Mexican songs like “Cielito lindo,” sung charmingly by Mia Rojas as Susanna. The seven-member band — Nelson at the keyboard and Eliseo on electric guitar, with violin, jarana (a small Mexican guitar), harp, upright bass and drums — is onstage, suggesting the kind of son jarocho ensemble that inspired Eliseo’s arrangements.
The dialogue is mainly in English, with the lyrics — a mix of Spanish and (not always lyrical) English — projected on two screens above the stage.
The singer-actors are all capable and personable and — with the exception of Lewis Freeman in the thankless role of Don Jack, the old lecher (“If I like young girls, what can I do?”), booed at the curtain call — we root for them. Some will shed a tear for Paloma, played by Elizabeth Mondragon, when she recounts her struggles and finally learns that her daughter is safe.
Though it evolved over the years, the zarzuela genre — said to be named for the Palacio de la Zarzuela (bramble-infested palace), a royal hunting lodge near Madrid where the shows were first performed in the 17th century — was always a lively mix of light drama, music and dance. The insertion of serious current issues in this production meant giving up some of the genre’s lightness, but brought a contemporary edge to what could have been a museum piece. And the lightness still shined through at times, notably when Nigel Rowe, who plays a security guard, sang about missing his home state of Oaxaca.
Remaining performances of “La Paloma at the Wall” at GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights are Saturday, March 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 31, at 2 p.m.