History in the making

Let the Eagle Fly

Rated 3.0

Several things happen simultaneously in Let the Eagle Fly, a new musical about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. At one level, it’s a hugely ambitious community production featuring an enormous cast, a band and a chorus. It depicts chanting strikers on picket lines, the famous grape boycott and more. On another level, it’s the Western states’ premiere of a stage-worthy new musical—and it’s a show we predict will go on to bigger things. Lastly, it’s a message about a critical episode in California’s history and a movement in which many of today’s Latino leaders came of age.

The show’s creators—John Reeger wrote the book, and Julie Shannon wrote the music and lyrics—faced a challenge, as did co-directors Ray Tatar and Richard Falcón. Chavez advocated nonviolent resistance; he organized boycotts and went on long fasts to draw attention to the cause. Those aren’t easy things to embody onstage. How do you portray a man not eating? And shoppers not buying grapes? Further, this is a message-driven show about a soft-spoken man who lived modestly, a man now posthumously viewed in almost saintly terms. It could easily become overly pious, and, in fact, it almost does.

Music provides the answer; music also was a critical element of the UFW’s organizing efforts. Several of the songs are hummable toe-tappers. The show’s sober, historic content also is leavened with moments of self-effacing humor. And the UFW’s opponents—most notably Dick Mangrum, playing a recalcitrant grower—aren’t entirely demonized.

It’s not a perfect production by any means. Some singers are steadier than others, and sometimes the band gets a tad out of phase, but the show moves the story along. It feels shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour run time. And critically, you get the sense that Chavez was a quiet man from an ordinary background, who nonetheless changed the course of history. A historically informed musical with tunes you can hum is a rare bird indeed.