The beats and sounds of 90’s House music fill the room as strobe lights flicker from the ceiling. A crowd of people dressed in colorful avant garde clothing are dancing and singing in a way that is both passionate and spiritual at the same time. They congregate together under an illuminating sign that reads, “Arena.”
For one night in L.A. they are free.
This is not an actual club or a church, but Casa 0101’s world premiere production of “Arena: A House Music-al.” The show is dedicated to the famous and now gone Hollywood nightclub that was once the home for many in L.A.’s queer and Latinx community in the 90’s and into the 2000’s.
The semi-autobiographical story was conceived by Abel Alvarado, whose life as a queer young man was transformed at the legendary club.
“Arena was the first gay club I ever went to,” said Alvarado. “It normalized gay Latinos for me, gay pelones, drag queens who spoke Spanish, gay cholas and cholos. And it really helped shape an identity with me and a lot of my friends and contributed to a generation of gay Latinos from L.A..”
Alvarado spent five years working on the musical and had originally pitched it as a 10 minute play to Casa 0101 artistic director, Josefina Lopez. But after their meeting she encouraged him to write a fully-fleshed musical.
The musical tells the coming out story of Lucio, a music minister and son of Apostolic Church pastors. It follows his life as he is exposed to queer nightlife, community, and romance all while at Hollywood’s legendary Arena gay nightclub.
“I met people who would later become politicians, designers, storytellers, professors,” said Alvarado. “I met people who changed my life under that roof. And I heard those beats and I danced with them. We created a movement, we created familia, we created comunidad.”
Alvarado first began by writing the story in 2017, a year after the club closed. The bar’s closure and the role it played in his queer life inspired much of the story.
He then worked on the script alongside dramaturg Patricia Zamorano, and finally on the original music and lyrics with Gabrielle Maldonado and Daniel Sugimoto. Other 90’s and 2000’s songs from the Arena era are also part of the musical score.
“We spent two to three years fleshing out the characters, rewriting, and cutting out stuff,” said Zamorano. “I mean, we went from 300 pages to 285 to 200.”
Zamorano said that part of the work was documenting the Arena era, which is reflected in a plot filled with historical references and several characters based on real people – including L.A. ‘s very own DJ Irene, the Fabulous Wonder Twins, and Boyle Heights’ legendary drag queen Miss Martin Mendez, who attended Roosevelt High School.
“As Brown, queer, Latinos in Los Angeles we don’t get to see ourselves on stage or screen,” said Zamorano. “There are a lot of moments with these historical figures like Miss Martin, who I even went to school with.”
The Fabulous Wonder Twins were also a part of the musical’s creation process by attending table reads and even donating two of their actual costumes for the dancers to wear in the production.
One of the fraternal twins, Louis Campos, now runs the Arena Nights. the 90’s page on Facebook which serves as a place to share archive pictures, memories, and reconnect with people who were there.
The musical is split into two acts with an all together runtime of about 150 minutes with 32 musical numbers. It is led by a dynamic cast which include Preston Valle in the lead role as Lucio Torrez, Caleb Green as Jerry Rodriguez, Luis Ceja as Miss Martin Mendez, and Milton David and Amy Melendez as Lucio’s Apostolic parents, to name a few.
The cast and production team received a standing ovation during a sold out opening night on June 17. There were both moments of laughter and somberness, with much of the praise going to the lead cast who carried the heart and soul of the story.
“It’s my love letter to people who love House music and to anyone who ever went to Arena or anyone who loves to dance,” said Alvarado. “This is an ofrenda that has to be told with music because music is what brought us together under that roof.”
“Arena: A House Music-al” is an opportunity to experience, or re-experience, the magic that were those nights in Hollywood for a queer communiyty of color trying to carve out its own space. A story that, almost six years since the club’s closure and demolition, can now be preserved and celebrated.
“ARENA: A House MUSIC-al” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4:00 p.m., at Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First Street (at St. Louis Street).
Tickets during the Five-Week run are $35 per person for General Admission; $30 per person for Students and Seniors; and $25 per person for Boyle Heights residents with ID and $75 for VIP tickets.