Ronstadt puts Mexico on Broadway map. Mariachi Vargas band provides solid backup

FIRST she was a pop/rock singer with a country edge. Later on, she went through a ballad-and-standard period with arranger Nelson Riddle. Meanwhile, she got into opera, singing Mimi in Puccini's ``La Boh`eme.'' Then she did a stint on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan's ``Pirates of Penzance.'' Linda Ronstadt was beginning to look like the girl who couldn't make up her mind. But at last, with a Mexican show on Broadway based on her latest album, ``Canciones de mi Padre'' (``Songs From My Father''), Ronstadt is looking like a woman who finally has made up her mind.

From start to finish ``Canciones de mi Padre,'' at the Minskoff Theatre here, is a delight. The music is beautifully performed by Mexico's traditional Mariachi Vargas band. The pacing is superb, the sets and costumes (for the most part) are colorful, the dances perfectly balanced with the music, and Ronstadt's voice is in top form.

Last year, digging into the roots of her Mexican heritage, she put together an album of traditional Mexican songs Always a perfectionist, Ronstadt took time not only to learn the language but to imitate every inflection, right down to the proper placement of tongue to teeth on certain words. Then she found the most authentic and traditional Mexican musicians and arrangers to work with her. The effect, especially in the live stage version, is stunning.

The program opens with Ronstadt and the 14-member Mariachi Vargas against a background of a gigantic flowered fan, which slowly folds to reveal a starry nighttime sky. Throughout the evening, the sets and costumes, as well as the musical moods, change frequently enough to keep things moving along. I had wondered how Ronstadt was going to pull off a whole concert of nothing but Mexican songs, but indeed she does, singing just enough by herself, just enough in duets and trios, and with the chorus (all the members of Mariachi Vargas are fine singers), and by letting both the dancers (the Ballet Folkl'orico de la Fonda) and the band have ample time on stage alone.

Vocally, Ronstadt has never sounded better. Her voice is strong and pure in every register, and she has thoroughly mastered the ``sob'' that is such an integral part of Mexican singing. The violins, trumpets, guitars, guitarr'on (the large Mariachi bass guitar), and harp support and complement her voice. One highlight is the love ballad ``Tu Solo Tu'' (``You, Only You''), sung with Ildefonso Moya.

She sings other duets with Moya and with Danny Valdez (Mexican actor/singer and coproducer of the Ritchie Valens movie ``La Bamba''), and her voice blends perfectly with theirs and with the other members of Mariachi Vargas.

When she sings with them, she keeps her eyes riveted on their faces, matching their phrasing with masterly precision, and the intense passion and joy that both she and her partners put into every song, keeps this technique from becoming mechanical.

The only disappointments are a couple of stage props: a fake locomotive and a shaky cardboard boat that brought some derisive chuckles from the audience at the performance I attended. Otherwise, it was a great show and a triumph for Linda Ronstadt. Without her, would theatergoers ever get the chance to see and hear these talented Mexican performers on Broadway?

``Songs From My Father'' will be at the Minskoff through July 30, then tour through Sept. 4. Among the stops are Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Denver.

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