Santa Cruz’s own Joe Ortiz hits a high note. How his turbulent, and oftentimes humorous, childhood became the genesis of an original musical at Cabrillo Stage.
Growing up is hardly a walk in the park—especially when your father is a Puerto Rican womanizer with a gambling addiction that’s as aggressive as his drinking addiction. So was the case for Joe Ortiz, who at 6 years old, had his universe flipped upside down, when a bookie set up shop in his living room in order to settle the gambling debts of his father, who had secretly skipped town.
The story of how Ortiz escaped the constant arguing of his parents, how his father escaped the bookie, and how the entire family eventually escaped the prison that was their hometown of Queens, N.Y. and moved to California, will be told through song and dance at Cabrillo Stage Aug. 10-19, when the world premiere of Ortiz’s original musical, “Escaping Queens,” is unveiled.
The first original musical that Cabrillo Stage has ever produced in its 31-year history, “Escaping Queens” not only sold out all eight of its scheduled performances, but also went on to sell out another two shows that were added at the last minute.
“That’s neat—the fact that they gave me a chance and that they had faith in me,” Ortiz says of the opportunity to produce an original work.
Considering Ortiz is well known around town—he and his wife Gayle own Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Capitola, and he’s produced four critically-acclaimed original plays, which have been performed in the area—it’s no surprise that tickets for “Escaping Queens” virtually disappeared over night.
“It’s one of those things that’s kind of bittersweet, because you know that people will be calling and saying, ‘Oh, can I get in?’ And sometimes it’s friends or close relatives,” he says. “I actually thought of going down to the theater beforehand and hawking [tickets]—just jokingly, of course,” he adds, with a laugh.
It’s a situation Ortiz has never been in before and a far cry from his original vision for the show: three performances supported by three fundraisers to help Cabrillo Stage during a time of budget cuts. “I really like the theater and I do fundraisers, so that was my gimmick to get my foot in the door,” he says. “And then they came back and said, we’ll do eight shows.”
The decision to recreate his childhood on stage wasn’t necessarily a conscious one, according to Ortiz. He had written a memoir, which detailed several of the scenes included in the play, but “this had taken on a life of its own,” he says.
“In some form, it’s therapy to get it out,” he explains. “In another way, it’s like [my relatives] were such funny characters.”
To illustrate his father’s eccentricity, Ortiz describes his first Thanksgiving, when his father came out dressed in a bathrobe and wearing a mop on his head like hair, and began singing “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter. The story of his father’s antics that night is one that his family continues to joke about years later; a photo of the get-up is on display in Ortiz’s house in Capitola.
“My father was crazy, so we’re reenacting this scene in the play,” says Ortiz. “We have a rent party to raise money for the rent, and he comes out and sings this song with a bathrobe on. … That was a big part of it—how can I get these really, what I thought were hilarious scenes, and some of the agony too, into the play?”
But it wasn’t all fun and games at the Ortiz household.
“They say this about alcoholics: One moment they’re joyous and fun and having a good time, and then the next minute, it’s the volcano, and you don’t know when it’s going to erupt,” says Ortiz, reflecting on his father, “and all of a sudden, you’re cowering.”
As a child, Ortiz would turn to his Italian mother for strength—she was a comforting figure who shielded the children from their father’s abrasive lifestyle.
“Symbolically, my father represents adventure, danger, taking risks, chaos and insanity,” he says. “And my mother represents the nurturing, soothing, warmth, feeding, and hospitality.”
In one segment of the play, the couple’s rocky relationship is portrayed through a song, in which they bicker over what’s for dinner.
“My parents were always arguing—in a loving way sometimes, and other times it was a battle royale,” he recalls. “I like the idea of song as an argument, so I wrote a song called ‘She Gives Me Macaroni, But I Need My Rice and Beans.’”
The song starts out lovingly, as the couple talks about all the spice in their life, like when she used to feed him peppers and sausages. But all of a sudden, the mood in the room turns sour.
“[My father insists] ‘I need the spice; you have to give me the spice in my life.’ And she says, ‘No, you’ll get no rice and beans.’ And so, it’s like she’s putting her foot down,” Ortiz explains.
Up until a year ago—Ortiz has been working on the play for nearly five years—he had kept his father out of the story entirely. In fact, the original concept for “Escaping Queens” was a one-woman show starring Lori Rivera as both Ortiz’s mother and his sister. But, over time, he had a change of heart, and decided that the play would be incomplete without his father and the rest of their relatives.
“I had to bring him in—there was just no other way,” says Ortiz. “I was resisting it, because I didn’t really want to go there. And how was I going to handle the difficult things? … Just admitting that and getting him in there was a big step.”
Once the cast was set, it was up to Ortiz to decide which aspects of his childhood would be reenacted exactly as they happened, and what would be added for dramatic effect.
“A lot of events in the story, I’d say 80 percent, actually happened,” says Ortiz. “And then there are a few things that really didn’t happen, but could have happened.” He cites the way in which the family escapes the bookie in the musical as an example of a scene, which was fabricated for the sake of the production.
Ortiz goes on to admit that Wyatt Bernard, who plays Little Joey, is 12, not 6 years old. “I couldn’t imagine finding a 6-year-old who would be able to do anything more than sit and watch what was going on, so we had to go with a kid who is a little bit older,” he explains. “And because of that, he’s a little brighter than I was at 6—and, not only that, he’s probably brighter than I was at 15.”
Though the majority of Ortiz’s family members who are portrayed in “Escaping Queens” have died, and therefore, he did not have to worry about offending anyone with his script, he wanted to make sure that he honored their memory. In order to recall details from the past and gain a different perspective of his immediate family, he enlisted the help of one of his cousins, who is a year apart from him in age. Their mothers were sisters and their fathers were brothers.
“We were kind of in the same situation,” Ortiz says of his cousin. “Her father was the same as my father, and her mother was very similar to my mother, and that was nurturing, somewhat of a doormat—you know, risky and daring in their own ways, but the ones who kept the family together.”
It wasn’t until Ortiz actually sat down to write the musical that he began to peel back the layers of the multidimensional characters in his life, particularly his mother.
“You try to write them the way they were, but there are times when the revisionist thing happens,” he says. “My mother is turning out, in the show, to be a little stronger than she really was—which I don’t mind. It was probably something she always aspired to.”
Ortiz believes that Rivera, who plays his mother, is partially responsible for that character development. The two first began working together in 2000, when she starred in his original musical, “Bread,” which was performed in a few local restaurants and theaters. Then, in 2010, they teamed up once again for “Smoke,” a one-woman cabaret, which debuted at Kuumbwa Jazz.
When it came to casting the role of his mother for “Escaping Queens,” it was a no-brainer for Ortiz. After all, Rivera and Ortiz relate to one another beyond their passion for song and dance.
“She had a similar background to me,” explains Ortiz. “She grew up in New York, and her father was Puerto Rican. Her father was also a gambler, a womanizer, and a drinker, who got kicked out of the house many times, only to return. And then eventually, he was given his walking papers. … And later, they too escaped to come to California for a better life.”
Perhaps it was that intimate connection to the story that enabled Rivera to really tap into the psyche of Ortiz’s mother during the first night of rehearsal for “Escaping Queens” in early July.
“There was a moment when Lori actually addressed Little Joey, in the show, and she had a kind of venom in her attitude,” Ortiz recalls of that night. “She was not motivated by anything in the script to be mad at the kid, but she just had this look on her face that was not love.
“But my mother was very loving,” he continues, “and I know that there were times when she got mad at me. But I know that the situation of dealing with my father may have thrown her into those situations. … And I thought, that’s why I am the way I am.”
That epiphany—the first that Ortiz has experienced in the making of his show, so far—regarding his mother’s love and self-awareness about his own attitude, is worth all of the time and energy he has put into “Escaping Queens,” he says.
Since Day One, personal growth and reflection have been at the foundation of the musical, for which Ortiz has returned to his hometown a few times in the last couple of years seeking inspiration. But the “dark, dusty and ominous” environment that Ortiz remembers from his youth was nowhere to be found.
“I went there [a couple of years ago] and it was just a beautiful day,” he says. “It looked all clean, and it wasn’t menacing, and I walked through the neighborhood, and I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s actually beautiful!’”
Following his stunning realization, Ortiz returned home to look at old photographs taken during his childhood in Queens. “My God, we were actually happy back then,” he remembers saying.
In his memory, Queens was little more than drab brick buildings and factories crammed together underneath a spider web-looking bridge (The Queensboro Bridge), whereas Southern California—where his family eventually moved—is glorified in the song “50-foot Palm Trees and Flamingo Pink Apartment Houses.” “It was sunny in Queens, but I didn’t really notice it,” he recalls.
Ortiz says he now recognizes that it wasn’t the physical aspect of the city that he feared and despised, rather it was his parents’ situation.
“There was this cloud over me and I was trying to protect myself from it,” he remembers. “I’d have my hands over my ears or my eyes and not see it all, or run to my mother’s arms for protection.”
In an effort to insulate himself from the hostile environment that was his home life, Ortiz would often find solace in the fantasy of his own mind. And once, at age 6, he even went as far as eating several pills of Aspirin to escape. In reality, his father found him convulsing and not breathing, gave him mouth-to-mouth, and saved his life. In the musical, the scene is tweaked slightly for dramatic effect (no spoilers here).
Despite the drama and genuine fear that characterized his early years in Queens, Ortiz says he has no regrets. “For me, that was a bad experience, but I’m glad I went through it,” he divulges. “It helped me in some way.”
If anything, the stories of his youth gave him enough engrossing material to write “Escaping Queens.” And, after several months of workshopping, an exponentially growing stack of rewrites—there are 18 songs in Act 1 alone—and enough self-analysis to make one’s head spin, Ortiz is looking forward to opening night.
“What I’m trying to get across in the entire play, is that our life isn’t just one thing—it isn’t just the anguish, the chaos, the fear, or the despair … but it’s also the humor, the food, and all the nurturing things,” he says. And as for the final thought-provoking question he hopes audiences will take away from the show? “How are we influenced by how we were raised and what we saw, and why do we turn out the way we are?”
“Escaping Queens” runs Aug. 10-19 at Cabrillo Stage’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Visit cabrillostage.com for details.
Don’t wait: Cabrillo Stage just added an additional show at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12, for the benefit of Good Times readers! Tickets for the show will go on sale at noon on Aug. 2. Buy your tickets for “Escaping Queens” today at cabrillostage.com.
Photos Courtesy of Joe Ortiz