A slashingly beautiful and sophisticated-looking Latina made her way toward the front of Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones de mi Padre" at the packed Pantages Tuesday night to get closer to the on-stage action. "I only wish she'd talk to the audience, so that we could get more of her, " she said.
That was an understandable misreading of intent.
"Canciones de mi Padre" is a full-blown artistic work which, like a group of childhood stories woven into a transcendent novel such as a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a celebration of a form. Ronstadt has the good sense not to get up front and tell us what we're about to hear, describing an ethnic and anthropological derivation that puts the chloroform gloss of a museum piece on everything that follows. She simply sings, and the result is a glory.
"Canciones de mi Padre," as you must have read by now, is a program based on the music Ronstadt heard as a child in Tucson, particularly as sung by her father, an ebullient Mexican-German storekeeper whose European musical root was crowded out by the more immediate and sensually palpable presence of the mariachis.
In one way, the simplicity and sweetness of much of this program is an expression of Ronstadt's return to her own innocence. But in another, it's an unveiling of a kind of Middle-American world, where Mexican-Latin and European-American cultures blend in a rough circle of Southwest geography no map or conventional history book quite defines.
This is not quite a Linda Ronstadt show, though there's no mistaking the authority of her central presence and the astonishing expressiveness of her round, full, coppery voice. This is more a staging for the poetry and passion of the mariachi form, and by the end of the night, we've made the discovery of the restless sensibility of an entire people.
The last dollop of spice that brought the mariachi form into musical focus, the salsa that gave the dish its pleasurable sting, happened only as recently the '20s, when the trumpet was added for burnish. Which means that an Aztec feudal culture overrun by the Spanish conquistadors has only relatively recently been squeezed, as its music tells us, into the modern world by American expansionism.
At the Pantages, the 14-piece Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan is on hand for "Canciones" to give us mariachi in full array, from the softly thumping guitarron (or six-string bass guitar) to the mandolin-like vihuela , topped by the sizzle of trumpets, and they give us the pocket of a culture pridefully holding on to itself in the midst of great unpredictable transience.
The Mariachi Vargas opened with a fanfarria, and showed up in force later for "El Tren Sone," "Fiesta en Jalisco" and "El Cascabel," while giving musical aid and comfort for a number of other pieces. In between there are dance numbers (principally featuring the Ballet Folklorico de la Fonda, Sal Lopez and Urbanie Lucero), a chuffing locomotive for what's titled "The Revolutionary Section," and plenty of starry and moonlit nights for Ronstadt and Danny Valdez to sing and gambol in. (Tony Walton did the good sets, and at one point the moon looks clownishly fat, as if it's in on the lovers' private joke.)
There's plenty of merriment and spectacle in "Canciones" (the flag-waving end of Act I is reminiscent of the pulsing nationalistic frenzy in "Evita," and you can feel its visceral catchiness). And there's something about the dexterity of this troupe that returns an initial excitement to potential groaners such as "La Bamba" and--would you believe?--the "Mexican Hat Dance."
But the program is by no means a roster of the familiarly trodden. Gilberto Puente on classical guitar plays an achingly beautiful "Malaguena Salerosa" whose lyrical richness and degree of difficulty is right up there with anything by Barrios or Falu. Director/choreographer Michael Smuin has an eye for the poetic and the good-humored that never violates the form in the name of New Age expressionism. Few of the songs are common coin.
And if Ronstadt has realized that she's bringing out the music of a half-hidden culture, she also reminds us that the highest poetry resides in the single voice.
She's expert at playing up the Spanish dynamic between the languid and the exigent, the soft vowel sound pressed against the bony spine of its consonant. Whether in soulful duet with Valdez (handsomely matured since his "Zoot Suit" days) or looking out front, Ronstadt brings brightness, clarity, sensual intonation and understatement to a language whose innate romanticism has an almost aphrodisiac potency.
In English, "My dark lovely one/ What am I going to do/ If you take this love/ Away from me" sounds corny. In Spanish, and as Ronstadt sings it, round and full-bore, "Mi prieta linda/ Que voy a hacer/ Si tu me quitas/ Este querer" is like an involuntary declaration of love.
There's much taste and feeling and sheer pleasure in "Canciones." And much owed to Ronstadt for bringing to the mainstream what otherwise has been lost in the stars of Tucson's desert nights.
Plays nightly at 8, with additional Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., at 6233 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 410-1062, through June 18.