Augie Garcia may have been one of the hottest local musicians you have never heard of. Who he was and why his career, at one time on a trajectory to the top, remained a merely local phenomenon are some of the issues explored in Joe Minjares’ lively new musical “River Road Boogie: The Augie Garcia Story,” which opened Saturday at History Theatre in St. Paul.
Growing up in the Mexican community of St. Paul’s West Side in the 1940s, Garcia showed musical talent from an early age. After returning from a stint in the Korean War, he gathered some fellow musicians (including Jimmy “Cornbread” Harris) and started the Augie Garcia Quintet. Their unique sound, an amalgamation of the music of his Mexican roots, rhythm and blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll, riveted audiences at their regular venue, the River Road Club in Mendota. By 1956 their recording of “Hi Yo Silver” was getting plenty of airplay and they were opening for Elvis at the St. Paul Auditorium. And then the sizzle began to quietly fizzle.
Minjares, who is well-known to Twin Cities audiences as a comedian and actor, creates a layered portrait of Garcia and his world as he examines the competing pressures and ambitions that shaped his career. Against the backdrop of Tom May’s striking set — a massive silhouette of a guitar bisected by the arches of the Robert Street bridge — director Raul Ramos’ strong ensemble infuses this world with light, color and infectious rhythm.
In a passionate performance, Ricardo Vázquez creates a Garcia whose single-minded focus on music is, in part, a strategy for dealing with unresolved trauma stemming from his wartime experiences. His playful courtship with Kelly Matthews as future wife Nancy and scenes that feature melodious ballads sung with his parents (played with warmth and humor by Lara Trujillo and Pedro R. Bayón) are intercut with visceral memories of the death of a friend during an enemy attack.
But where this work really sings is in the rehearsal scenes and musical numbers. Shawn Hamilton, Riley Jacobson, Matt Rein, Corey Stampley and Benjamin D. Wagner create a nice sense of camaraderie and competition as they practice, and then unleash astonishing electric energy in their performances. Under Sarah Hohenstein Burk’s capable musical direction, these actor/musicians ably capture the joyful, outrageous and engaging style that made the Augie Garcia Quintet such a draw.
Opening night’s pacing sometimes lagged and meandered, but that problem will likely work itself out over time and it didn’t hinder the explosive impact of this fascinating revelation of the life and work of Augie Garcia. This “River Road Boogie” solidly documents Garcia’s place in the story of Minnesota rock ’n’ roll.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.