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Children of Salt
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 23, 2016

Barrie Linberg and Mauricio Martínez
Photo by Russ Rowland

Memories, both pleasant and piercing, fuel Jaime Lozano and Lauren Epsenhart's entry at the Pearl Theatre for the New York Musical Festival, Children of Salt. In it, a 40-year-old man named Raúl returns to his childhood home in Mexico to pay respects to his dying abuela, and learns the hard way, after kindling recollections of that earlier (but not-always-happier) time and seeing what past events have wrought, that he can't go home again—and probably shouldn't.

True, there's not a ton of new territory being explored here (this is, admittedly minus some elaboration, the essential plot of Follies and many other shows), but lyricist-librettist Epsenhart and composer Lozano, whose work is based on Hernán Galindo's play Los Niños de Sal, have so attractively polished nearly every aspect of their investigation that it hardly matters. Raúl (Latin-American recording artist Mauricio Martínez) is believably tortured by his fraught upbringing in the present-day scenes, but subject to slow erosion when we trip back to the past: Much of the impact of the evening, which has been directed by Jose Zayas, comes from seeing the happy-go-lucky kid transform into a broken-down adult through experiences that happen to almost everyone.

These include adventures with friends, playful romances with girls, unexpected brushes with outside reality (including, but not limited to, death), and losing one's virginity. And honor, duty, and religion are among the themes tackled, gently but firmly, along the way. It's the cumulative effect of all of this, over the course of the years the story runs, that makes Raúl exactly who he is, and though there's a big gap in the middle (he escaped his town for reasons we only gradually discover) it doesn't feel like it—you can draw lines from each significant event to pinpoint the hows and whys of Raúl's mounting troubles and not be wrong. None of this is traditionally predictable, however—Epsenhart in particular ensures that, even if the big picture is obvious, zooming in on the intricate details is the only way to completely understand what's going on.

Do that and you're rewarded with a surprisingly potent combination coming-of-age/midlife-crisis tale that functions as both disquieting object lesson and lively diversion. Though Epsenhart is primarily responsible for the former, Lozano takes over for the latter with her infectious Latin songs, which capture at once the unbridled ardor of youth and the haunting strains of aging regret. The ten-piece band (led by Geraldine Anello) features two trumpets, a trombone, and a saxophone that adroitly recreate the undulating beats against which Raúl grew up without every feeling like limp imitations; the choreography (by Stephanie Klemons) matches the music note for exuberant note.

Mauricio Martínez with Mario Cortés, Javier Ignacio,
and Nicolas Baumgartner
Photo by Russ Rowland

Compelling casting makes what's good even better, starting with Martínez, who's both a sharp vocalist and a resourceful if dark actor who expertly blends the bubbles and brood of Raúl without a trace of artifice. Barrie Linberg gives a sensitive, affecting reading of Coral, the unlucky girl Raúl left behind, that believably links the two with cords of dissatisfaction; as a woman who leads Raúl down rather different paths toward manhood, April Ortiz is alternately saucy and haunted, at no point a caricature of a good girl gone bad; and Florencia Cuenca, as Raúl's grandmother, is the essence of clear-eyed familial loyalty. As Raúl's friends, Javier Ignacio, Mario Cortés, and Nicolas Baumgartner burst with energy as teens and hopelessness as adults, as required, giving you all the information you need to see how their own implosions occurred; and Joshua Cruz plays the bad-influence Ángel (the only role of questionable necessity) with a shiver of well-meaning menace.

Children of Salt, though professionally realized in every respect, from Zayas's fluid staging to the lovely disconnected beach mindscape set is by Arnulfo Maldonado, does have trouble maintaining its momentum. Though their show runs only 90 minutes, the writers struggle to keep it filled with relevant content until the very end, and push back a couple of key reservations longer than they should. The songs in the last third or so are also uncharacteristically weak and narrow-focused, taking more time than ought to be required to make simple points the more economic earlier scenes have already helped us to understand. And once the action has settled permanently in the present, the proceedings lose a bit of their wonder and magic as come dangerously close to wallowing with Raúl rather than watch him try to call out of his own oppressive circumstances.

Further drafts can, and hopefully will, address these fairly minor problems; this show is well worth the additional effort. Like Raúl, we're all tormented by what we remember and what we forget, and are forever internally reliving our pasts in hopes that somehow better outcomes will result, and that notion is captured here in an enlightening and entertaining way that simultaneously encourages both looking behind and trudging ahead. (In this respect alone, the choice of title was no accident.) Even if Children of Salt doesn't get all the additional seasoning it deserves, it's already a musical to savor.

Children of Salt
The New York Musical Festival occupies 7 venues in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Musical Festival Box Office and audience services Is located at 42West NY, 510 West 42nd St between 10th & 11th Avenues
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