It seems fitting that not long after El Paso made the Rockefeller Foundation’s list of 100 resilient cities around the world, long-time outdoor musical “Viva! El Paso” would make a comeback. Starting this month through August, the local favorite will bounce back from last year’s fall.
Since 1978, the show has depicted 400 years of El Paso’s history and evolution through indigenous people, Spanish conquistadors, cowboys and Mexican settlers. Many fans and performers were disappointed last year, when there was a halt to the annual musical.
“It was sad when the show was canceled because this is a tradition in El Paso,” choreographer Jaime Carrasco said. “Even though some people had seen the show before, the following year they would look forward to seeing it again and take family from out of town to see it.”
A dancer who runs Ballet Folklorico Quetzales, Carrasco has been a part of the musical on and off since 1989 and witnessed the destabilization of the show. From conflicts among board members of the former El Paso Association for the Performing Arts, which ran “Viva! El Paso,” to the loss of its non-profit status to declined ticket sales to the organization’s disbandment, the future of the show seemed dubious for many fans until several organizations and institutions stepped in. Destination El Paso General Manager Bryan Crowe reached out to the El Paso Community Foundation, which then reached out to the University of Texas at El Paso Department of Theatre and Dance for talent. Destination El Paso is the promoter of the show.
“We’re here to get all that behind us and really work on a bright future,” said El Paso Community Foundation president Eric Pearson. “We’re starting from the beginning with good governance and solid financial backing and the opportunity for El Pasoans and people from out of town to come and enjoy what I consider one of the most beautiful places in El Paso, the McKelligon Canyon.
“[This is] an important show that reflects El Paso’s history and provides the opportunity for students at UTEP and elsewhere to learn the ropes in a professional production.”
The foundation invested upwards of $130,000 into the show, Pearson said. UTEP Department of Theatre and Dance head of directing and production coordinator Chuck Gorden is the creative director. With 30 years of experience directing shows including outdoor performances, Gorden’s enthusiasm for this year’s run of “Viva! El Paso” hints at a promising future for the show’s revival.
“In a lot of ways it’s more than just a show because it does speak directly to the culture of the people who live here,” Gorden said. “It addresses the roots and history of the different cultures that have created what we know as El Paso.”
The musical will draw back to its roots following the storyline of an abuela and her soon-to-be-married granddaughter. The abuela tells her granddaughter stories of El Paso’s history, which is depicted through various song and dance sequences. New to the show will be the interpretive depiction of La Llorona.
“The girls who dance in the back represent the water of the river and the children who are drowned and the whole idea of the mythological chorus telling the story,” choreographer and UTEP head of dance Lisa Smith said.
About 75 people are involved in “Viva! El Paso,” including long-time participants such as choreographers Carrasco and Nina Gomez, as well as new participants such as Vanessa Keyser, who plays the abuela.
“When I was little, my grandparents would take me to see “Viva! El Paso” in the summer when we would visit,” Keyser said. “It’s a lot of fun to be a part of such an amazing spectacle, but also something so historical that really tries to define who we are and where we’ve been and where we’re going.”