The NoHo Arts Center may have only one entrance, but there are many ways into Ed Begley Jr.'s Cesar & Ruben, a 2003 musical about Chavez and Salazar getting a superb revival through September 16. Whether one approaches it for the relevance of political theater or the escapism of musical theater, to enjoy great Latino theater or honest California history, or just see what Begley can do as a writer-director, Cesar & Ruben rewards on every level. Credit him with integrating history, fantasy, music, drama, humor, pathos, and English and Spanish with a perspective that, regardless of what you thought you were in for, will leave you grateful and optimistic.
With occasional use of a Magical Mystery Jukebox, Begley's script weaves existing songs by singer-songwriters from Lalo Guerrero to David Gray and Ruben Blades to Sting into the story of Chavez's life. James Jermias's open set features a projection screen for documentary photos and clips (as well as subtitles for translated Spanish lyrics). A recurring image supports an overarching railroad metaphor - specifically the curious Tehachapi loop - which recalls earlier forms of worker exploitation as it sets up the theme of turning around to see where we've been if we are to rise above and move beyond where we are. With a steely honesty about California politics as backbone and a colorful theatricality for appeal, Cesar & Ruben looks back at, and elevates in stature, two of our state's great crusaders.
The play takes place sometime after each man has died. They meet in a way station represented by a simple bar and renew their acquaintance. In order to move on, Chavez needs to review key points in his life and get a better sense of his contribution. Salazar, who has his own post-partum issues, has been sent to make sure Chavez takes an unflinching look. Though that may sound like an overused device, Begley's writing keeps the dialogue spontaneous, and Danny Bolero as Chavez and Mauricio Mendoza as Salazar keep it real. Each song is chosen for lyrics that move the story ahead rather than for popularity, and as each arrives there's a combined sense of the familiar and the totally original. Seeing Cesar Chavez, for example, belt out a pop tune would seem to be enough to drive us screaming into the alley. But the play's aesthetic, and Bolero's naturalness with his assignment, makes it not only passable but inspirational.