‘Sugar Skull’ to use dance, music, magic to teach Penn State audience about Mexican culture

“Sugar Skull!, A Dia de los Muertos Musical Adventure” tells the story of a preteen girl rediscovering her Hispanic roots, though the show is much more than a colorful celebration of and education on Day of the Dead.

Produced by New York City-based Mexico Beyond Mariachi and presented by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, the family-friendly show comes to Eisenhower Auditorium at 4 p.m. Sunday. It presents a theme of family and heritage that anyone can relate to, while fitting perfectly into Mexico Beyond Mariachi’s mission to broaden the general understanding of Mexican culture.

Peter Bogdanos, co-founder and executive director of Mexico Beyond Mariachi, says the group came about when he and one of his co-founders “recognized a distinct need in the New York community, specifically the education community, for teaching kids about Mexican culture ... and digging a little bit deeper into the diversity of Mexican culture.”

Mariachi and the culture surrounding it are often most familiar in American culture, he says, but it only represents one specific region of Mexico. Taking audiences “beyond mariachi” exposes them to the wide range of different cultures found across Mexico to more accurately represent the changing demographics of Mexican-Americans who come from all over the country.

“(Mariachi) is beautiful and it’s gorgeous but there are lots of other cultural traditions that get left behind and are out of the purview of the populace,” Bogdanos said. “In our travels and research, we traveled all around Mexico and built relationships with different people throughout different parts of Mexico. We realized it would be great to take something from the southern states, a Gulf state, a Pacific state, something that’s very African-based, and bring it (all) into the consciousness of the arts community here in New York.”

And so, Mexico Beyond Mariachi got its initial start about two decades ago before evolving into what it is today. Currently, the organization produces between 50 and 75 in-school shows per year, working with children in classrooms during the school day in schools all over the Mid-Atlantic and New England.

Several years ago, Bogdanos and his team decided to expand into shows at performing arts centers around the country, resulting in bigger, more highly-produced shows that present a narrative, not just dancing and music. They opted for a Day of the Dead-centric production and “Sugar Skull!” was born.

Bogdanos calls the story a “very heartfelt, magical one.”

“It’s the story of a typical tween,” he said. “She’s 12-13 years old. She’s American. She’s doing everything everyone else is doing around that age, but then she suddenly wonders why (her family), one time a year, they have this holiday that no one else around her celebrates. She begins to question the meaning of it. She starts to dig a little deeper ... and a whole world opens up for her and she goes on a magical journey. It’s really a journey inside herself, rediscovering what’s already there, but giving it more importance.”

While he says the show is culturally specific in terms of the sights, sounds and music, the theme is relatable to anyone with cultural roots, who question the celebrations and traditions of their ancestors and their relevance to today. “Whether someone comes from an Italian background, a German background, a Greek background, they’ll be able to empathize with the character.”