‘Ramona’ Pageant’s final weekend coming to Hemet’s Ramona Bowl

Director Dennis Anderson of “Ramona” the outdoor play goes over a script change with lead actors Kayla Contreras as Ramona and Joseph Valdez as Alessandro. Standing behind them are The Aria Troubadours whose family have been a part of the play since it first began over 90 years ago. Tony Ault photo

“Ramona,” California’s official outdoor play, continues this weekend with the exciting and touching performances of Kayla Contreras and Joseph Valdez as Ramona and Alessandro with more than a thousand expected at the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater in Hemet.

The first two weeks of the play proved to be highly successful, especially with much more refined performances from not only Contreras and Valdez, but the entire cast under the direction of veteran Director Dennis Anderson proved to be likewise exceptional. This weekend’s performances May 5 and 6 are expected to be even better as the 94th season of this exceptional outdoor play concludes.

The performance by Contreras playing “Ramona” this year is even more exciting and heartfelt than last year when she first won the part. In a backstage interview before the play began, Contreras said last year she was “terrified.”

“But, this year I am really excited to play before a paying audience,” Contreras said, as she remembered her first performance years ago as a fourth-grade student. “That’s another story. Now, I feel completely confident.” Contreras is an acting student at California State University. And she was acting with confidence, on the Rancho Veranda to the grassy center stage, to the hut in the hills above the amphitheater.

Despite walking and running from place to place, up and down the flower-covered hills of the Ramona Bowl in the heat for the last two performances with her co-star Valdez, they were just as energetic as they were in their first performance April 22.

“I feel great,” Valdez said, noting it was his third year playing Alessandro. “It’s a fun play to do. You get to ride horses and run around everywhere. I tell everybody I get to run up a mountain. It’s one those plays where I think people can have a good time and also feel a little bit.”

The play, penned by Helen Hunt Jackson in the early 1880s, is the tragic love story of a young ward of a wealthy dispossessed Mexican ranch family. Ramona fell in love with a Native American named Alessandro. Alessandro was later killed by cowboys who hated Indians and wanted them off their newly acquired land, leaving Ramona pregnant and almost homeless. The play and Jackson’s fictional novel, based on an event that actually happened in the San Jacinto Valley, woke the American people of that time to the fact of our governments’ injustices to the Native American people in the Southwest.

In the early part of the play, local actress Linda Grielich, as the author and Harvey Lippert, as the priest who told the author about the trial, are an example of the exceptional skill of the other performers in the play. The introduction to the three-hour play describes Jackson going into a rage after talking the priest, which moves her to write her Ramona novel.

Grielich, in a change of costume, later emerges as the Rancho Moreno’s fiesta singer, backed by talented Ramona musicians, The Aria Troubadours.

The performance of Kathi Anderson, playing the head of the Rancho Moreno household as she tells her adopted niece Ramona of her unknown Indian heritage, held the audiences in silent awe that grew to a huge ovation.

Colorful fiesta and Indian ceremonial scenes by the Spanish Dancers and the Red Tail Spirit Dancers danced to music by The Aria Troubadours; the sound will never be forgotten by audiences listening during the outdoor scenes in the almost acoustically perfect Ramona Bowl foothills. Highlighting the Indian ceremonial scene is the special performance of world champion Indian Hoop Dancer Terry Goedel, making his 22nd appearance in the Ramona Bowl with a contingent of costumed Bird Singers from the Valley reservations.

As always, the Ramona Bowl foothills come alive with dozens of local schoolchildren popping up from the rock strewn hillside portraying the Rock Indians during the Indian ceremonial scene. Leading the Rock Indians is the beautiful song from the Rock Indian Chief and soloist on the hill, Frank Jaramillo.

Then who can forget the band of cowboys. Dan Fergusson, who plays Jim Ferrar, shows his fine horsemanship with the other cowboys and mounted soldiers Mike Thomas, J.R. Hill, Severiano “Eric” Cervantes, Chris Summers, Steve Silkotch, Jr., Ruben Aguay, Thomas Firth, David Sandoval, Greg Bruce, Rick Hodson and Danny Sullivan. The sound of blank gunfire by the cowboys more than once surprises the audience.

Always showing their best onstage were Daniel Martinez as Juan Canito, Bret Cherland as Felipe Moreno, Cesaria Hernandez as Marda, Robert Leibovich as Padre Salvadierra, Pablo Cifuentes as Luigo, Gregg Wilder as Jefferson Hyer Ramona’s rescuer, Paola Cifuentes as Margarita, Emilia Skye Hernandez as Dolores, Monica Reichl as Aunt Ri, young Rafael Wave Hernandez as Joe, Randy Dawkins as Padre Gaspara and Theresa Seaton as Ancient Mara.

Ramona Director Anderson couldn’t be more pleased with the changes he made to the more recent plays and with the audience reactions. He noted that the changes perhaps brought the play more in line with Jackson’s novel.

“It fits more with the book,” he said. Additionally, Anderson was pleased the lead performers and other actors have not changed much easily adjust the new scripts.

The play is closes its run May 6-7 at the Ramona Bowl, 27400 Ramona Bowl Road, in Hemet. Tickets range from $20 to $34, and a family 4-pack is $99. Tickets are available at www.ramonabowl.com or at the ticket office. Call (800) 645-4465 for more information.

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