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Eastside Heartbeats (Casa 0101)

The Latino section of Los Angeles, built up after WWII, is due east of the downtown: Montebello, Duarte, Wilmas, Lomas, and Boyle Heights. A hundred years ago, Boyle Heights was largely Jewish. Today it’s overwhelmingly Latino. So the cultural boundaries fifty years ago were pretty well restricted to one’s own borders. Blacks had Watts and Compton; Asians were in South Bay; Whites were, of course, all over the map, including what playwright Cris Franco calls The Same Fernando Valley.

Music, therefore, was largely restricted in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement to ethnic boundaries. So when talented Latino musicians and singers wanted to break out of these self-imposed borders, they largely couldn’t. 

So it was a big deal when home-grown groups such as Cannibal and the Headhunters, Tierra, Thee Midnighters, The Premieres, The Blendells, Rosie and the Originals, etc., carried on a small tradition from the 1940s, essentially creating Chicano Rock. That’s what the new musical, “Eastside Heartbeats,” (book by Tom Waldman and songs mostly by James Holvay) dramatizes. Using a fictional story of four young Latinos from Boyle Heights: Jimmy (Kenneth Lopez), Mario (Marco Infante), Andy (Jesse Maldonado) and Ronnie (Matthew Ramos) start up a band that flat-out refuses to sing more traditional Mexican songs, attitudes that get them into trouble with their traditionalist families.

Jimmy is the lead story here, with his serious conflicts with his father, Carlos (Gabriel Gonzalez) and his mother, Sonia (Diana Castrillon), supported only by his rebellious fifteen-year-old sister, Lydia (Angel Galvan).  But a young woman Jimmy is serious about, Teresa (Bernardita Nasser), works for, and is involved with, Jewish record producer, Hal Fisher (Jordan Charles), who signs up the lads for a record. 

It instantly becomes a hit in the barrio, but – common in the day – cannot find traction outside of Latino neighborhoods, throwing them into despair. So far, so accurate. And enlightening even though the songs of this musical tend to sound alike, making it difficult to determine the Chicano Rock aspects of it.

Waldman’s book is a problem in that it covers entirely too many storylines, giving everyone their space as well as a production number. It turns out East L.A. is close to Watts, giving Jimmy and his pal, Jahmal (the very charismatic Eddie Mitchell) a chance to trade influences, only to be disrupted by the 1965 Watts Riots.  And that, as important as it is, is simply one too many stories. 

The importance of the inter-generational conflicts (found everywhere, at all times) doesn’t propel the storyline, although it gives the fine-voiced Gonzalez and Lopez a chance to blow off the roof, still, it interferes with the stronger through-line of why Chicano singers had a rough time making full careers then.

The show, under the direction of Steve E. Feinberg, is fast-paced, with gorgeous period choreography by Urbanie Lucero, rambunctious band-playing, under the capable leadership of Gary St. Germaine, as well as a cast capable of singing and dancing and acting. But any future for this show will depend on re-vamping the book, cutting it by at least 30 minutes.

Opening night the producers announced that “Eastside Heartbeats” is the most attended of their shows, ever, (they had a shake-down run for four weeks earlier in the year) and you can see why: aside from “Zoot Suit” thirty years ago, there have been few plays, let alone musicals, which have been about Hispanic/Latino/Chicano Culture. And this show does have legs, which should allow for more of the same.

Eastside Heartbeats, A New Rock ‘n’ Roll Musical,” plays through May 29th, 2016, at Casa 0101 Theatre, 2102 East 1st Street, Boyle Heights. Tickets: 323.263.7684, at, or online at www.casa0101,org.