KU Presents! Family Series will Present “Sugar Skull” To Honor the Day of the Dead

Photo of Sugar Skull

by Susan L. Peña

KUTZTOWN, Pa. – Young and old of any background will be enchanted by “Sugar Skull! A Dia de los Muertos Adventure,” a play with music featuring authentic Mexican songs and folkloric dances performed by three actors, two dancers and three musicians. This season’s first offering in the KU Presents! Family Series will be presented 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1, Schaeffer Auditorium.

“Sugar Skull” is produced by Rhythm of the Arts, founded in 2005 in New York City to provide a platform for culturally specific performing arts companies to reach greater audiences. Its productions celebrate authentic storytelling, multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaborations and live music.

Leah Keith, Rhythm of the Arts’ founder, creative producer and agent, said she had no idea when she was exploring the idea of creating a family show about the Day of the Dead, that the Disney film “Coco” was about to explode into the public consciousness. Since then, many Americans have adopted the holiday, which happens Wednesday, Nov. 1, the day after Halloween, even if they have no connection with Mexico.

The Day of the Dead, celebrated in many countries but with particular gusto in Mexico, is a time to remember those who have passed away with ofrendas (altars) in the home, decorated with food, mementos and marigolds. Humor is injected into stories shared about the dead, with mock epitaphs; calaveras (sugar skulls) are given out; and songs and dances like “La Danza de los Viejitos” are performed by children wearing masks of old people.

Keith’s company was already representing the ensemble “Mexico Beyond Mariachi,” co-founded by her husband Peter Bogdanos, which features multidisciplinary artists performing Mexican regional music and dance. They took their productions into schools throughout the region as part of arts-in-education programs. One of their shows focused on “Day of the Dead” songs and dances.

So Keith set about creating a family show built for the performing arts center circuit, for family and bus-in school shows. “I thought people may not know exactly what Day of the Dead is, but it’s a hook for audiences because they are familiar with the striking images,” she said.

She invited a friend and colleague, Gregory Jafari Van Acker to write the script, and MBM’s former musical director, Sinuhe Padilla, to create the musical arrangements and orchestrations of traditional songs. They began working on the play in November 2017, around the same time that “Coco” was released.

The story focuses on 12-year-old Vita Flores, a first-generation Mexican American girl who is disconnected from her parents’ culture. When she wants to celebrate Halloween like her friends, her mother insists on celebrating the Day of the Dead.

“She gets whisked away to the Land Beyond,” Keith said, “and she can’t leave until she defeats ‘El Coco’ (the Mexican bogeyman sometimes called Cucuy). ‘Sugar Skull’ (a skeleton) comes to life and helps her through this journey.”

The first version of the show toured in the fall of 2018 and was received well, as it has been ever since. “Every reaction we had was positive,” she said. “We see the most heartfelt responses during the Q&As after the shows. Children of Mexican and Latin-American descent get such a sense of pride, and they can share that with their classmates and friends. Representation on stage is so important for this very reason.

“It’s a multi-generational show. It teaches how to deal with loss, and how to celebrate the legacy of family members who have left us.”

In 2019, the company raised $20,000 through Kickstarter to hire a director, Elena Araoz, build a set and upgrade the costumes. They went on a 30-city tour, and were set for another tour the next year, but it was canceled because of COVID-19. In late 2022 they started up again, and now they are gearing up for their 2023 cross-country tour.

Keith noted that most of the cast members are of Mexican descent. The music director for the show is a Costa Rican, Felipe Fournier, who has won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Mariachi/Ranchero Album as a producer for “Las Caras Lindas” by Flor de Toloache.

Keith, whose mother is from Colombia, is a former flamenco dancer who toured nationally before earning her Master of Fine Arts in performing arts management from Brooklyn College. Prior to developing the management and producing branch of Rhythm of the arts, she worked as an agent and manager for Columbia Artists and Opus 3 Artists.

All tickets for “Sugar Skull! A Dia de los Muertos Adventure” are $15 and can be purchased by calling the KU Presents! Box Office 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, at 610-683-4092. Established to be the center of cultural life at Kutztown University, KU Presents! serves the campus and community by bringing world-class live arts that entertain, educate and enrich.