By Bridgette Redman

“Americano!” is a story so powerful that The Phoenix Theatre is staging it as part of its 100th anniversary season. Just how powerful? It’s already being advertised on billboards in Times Square. 

It could be one of the most ambitious and important new works of 2020. 

“Americano!” is a musical based on the life of Camelback High School graduate Tony Valdovinos, who was so inspired by the events of 9/11 at age 11 that he told himself he would join the Marines. At age 18, he visited a Marine recruiter’s office and then learned he was not a U.S. citizen. He was brought from Mexico by his parents when he was 2 years old.

Valdovinos was the first Dreamer to work at Phoenix City Hall and founded La Machine Operations, which supports candidates to office. He’s helped to elect three Marines and many women. He says it’s moving to watch his story in “Americano!”

“It’s hard to explain what it is like to listen to music and watch these professional actors portray some of the toughest moments of my life,” Valdovinos says. “I believe in the importance of it being told, but I’m definitely keeping my head down and continuously doing my work in the political fields.”

The musical has received big-time support, including a $250,000 donation from public relations executive Jason Rose, the brainchild behind the idea. He brought in Ken Davenport to helm the production. Davenport is well known in Broadway circles as the producer of “Kinky Boots.” 

The cast is 85% Latino, including Texan singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez, who composed tunes for “Americano!” on the recommendation of Michael Barnard, the Phoenix Theater’s artistic director, and Jonathan Rosenberg, the musical’s co-writer. 

“I had no previous history with musical theater,” Rodriguez says. “I think my music spoke to them. Obviously, they were looking for something out of the box in terms of musical theater. It was one of those opportunities that come to you in life that you cannot say no to. Tony’s story was so inspiring. His story was one I felt really compelled to help tell. It was a real privilege to be handed this assignment, no matter how scary it was.”

When Rodriguez began her work, it was scary for Valdovinos. He talks about how powerful the songs are and how much they capture his life and his emotions in ways he didn’t expect. 

“I cannot tell you what it is like to listen to a song that brings you back to 110% of what it felt like to want to join the Marines,” Valdovinos says. 

“You just get rushed back into time to the essence of what that feeling was. It was really scary to almost see the reality of the art. I just couldn’t believe it was 20 actors playing my dad, playing me, playing my girlfriend at the time who did join the Marines.”

Valdovinos says has never enjoyed theater or had an interest in it, but listening to “Americano!” and its music “punched through my chest and pulled out some real memories and experiences. 

“It’s beyond powerful for me to hear a song about what it felt like to want to join the Marines,” he adds.

“It’s very emotional for me to hear a song where my dad portrays the responsibility of his fatherhood. I think it is the music that is the real success in this entire effort in my mind and heart. It’s just so beautiful. I feel honored for the writers, but also for the singers.” 

Arizona native and Calexico member Sergio Mendoza arranged the music. Rodriguez says he brought out the Arizona sound in a significant manner as most of her music is Tex-Mex. Mendoza has helped to make it Arizona-Mex. 

“In the workshops, I’ve changed a million lines and words,” Rodriguez says. “When I hear them coming out of the actor’s mouth, it is different than coming out of mine. I’ve probably written 30 to 35 songs at this point for this musical and in the end, we’ll be using no more than 18 or 19.”

Rodriguez was chosen for the project because the producers wanted something different. 

“I tried to keep that in mind, especially in the beginning when the self-doubt would creep in,” Rodriguez says. 

“Usually when I write a song, I perform it a few times. I feel what is right or not, I record it and I move on. But this is such a collaboration. Not only are we collaborating with our two writers, but with our producer, our musical arranger, with the choreographer, with Tony, and with the lead actor.”

Ultimately, she says the songs for “Americano!” don’t sound that different than the songs she writes for herself, but she stayed true to the Mexican-American feel. 

“I’m always finding new ways to play what I call Ameri-Chicano music,” she says. “It’s Americana, but I’m a Chicano. I wanted the music to feel like it is coming from my neighborhood in Austin, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. I wanted it to feel like you are in a real place and the setting is very much telling us who the people are.”

For Valdovinos, it is important that “Americano!” help people understand who the Dreamers are and why citizenship is so important. His parents left Mexico when he was 2 and his brother was 3. They were starving and malnourished. His mother, at age 24, left everything she knew to become invisible for her two children’s health.

“The courage our parents had is unmatched,” Valdovinos says. “I honor that deeply. As for me, I grew up in the United States. I was brought here as a toddler. I pledged allegiance to the flag in Head Start, first grade, all the way to 12th grade. I still have a flag in my home. No one can ever rob you of being an American. It’s an oath, it’s a feeling, a pledge of allegiance.”

“Americano,” The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Mainstage Theatre, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, phoenixtheatre.com, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays January 29 to February 23, ticket start at $41.