BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB
There is little music so emotionally and kinetically infectious than Cuban music and song. Their delirious effect that sears the soul and moves the body is captured marvelously in the new musical “Buena Vista Social Club”, Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre in the West Chelsea section of Manhattan. Based on the same-named 1997 hit album and the 1999 Wim Wenders documentary film about the elderly musicians who made the music, the show isn’t just a musical review: the book by Cuban-American Marco Ramirez is a tale of cultural fidelity and the undeniability of the creative spirit.
Ramirez cleverly constructs a memory play that travels back and forth from the recording sessions in 1996 and 1956, the waning year of the Batista regime and the rise of Castro’s communist revolution. Events are told mostly through fictionalized experiences of one of the original album’s vocalists, Omara Portuondo (an outstanding Natalie Venetia Belcon). In the 1950’s scenes, she (the younger Omara played by Kenya Brown) and her sister, Haydee (Danaya Esperanza), a vivacious and talented duo perform commercial fare at the El Tropicana hotel, which largely caters to American tourists. Omara, dissatisfied with the artistic confinements of the venue, connects on the other side of the tracks with musicians who play at the racially-inclusive Buena Vista: Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Semé), guitarist-singer Compay Segundo (Julio Monge) and pianist Rubén González (Jainardo Batista Sterling). Their counterparts in the 1950s are played by Olly Sholotan, Jared Machado and Leonardo Reyna. The older principals re-unite in 1996 to record “music from the old days” - the result, the famous LP, credited with giving Cuban music its international due.
Over the decades, Omara has witnessed lovers come and go, and dreams made and lost. Rendered asunder forever is the relationship between her and sister Haydee. Omara, toughened by personal hardships and creative struggles (and beset with a difficult artistic temperament) is haunted by the estrangement of her sister who fled Cuba when Castro gained power. The passions of Cuban musical styles - son, boleros, guajiras - fit the tale perfectly.
Character, story, music and dance (more about this later) are balanced by director Saheem Ali. who developed the entire project. David Yazbek, who directed the Tony-winning “The Band’s Visit”, that also premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic, is creative consultant; the similarities in production sensibilities of the two productions are evident.
A fixed set by Arnulfo Maldonado, who designed the Tony-winning “Strange Loop”, suggests the aging balconied facade of a Spanish colonial casa; the performance face functions as recording studio and the Buena Vista. A spectacular band of 11 musicians - all Latin - perform 15 Cuban songs, some from the famous 1997 LP. There’s plenty of opportunity to feature instrumental soloists, the most memorable of which is flutist Hery Paz. (Scoffs a controlling Omara in the recording session - who ever put a flute in Cuban music?)
The surprising element of “Buena Vista Social Club” is the dance, choreographed by Cuban-American Patricia Delgado, who was principal dancer for the Miami Ballet, and spouse Justin Peck, who choreographed Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of the movie version of “West Side Story” and who won a Tony for his choreography for the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” The dance, informed by ballet, jazz, calypso and tango, is breathtaking, performed by an ensemble of six. It’s not only accurate to the passions of Cuban music , but also astoundingly athletic, particularly given the shallow scale of the Atlantic stage.
Omara’s life is full of pathos; in the end, “‘Buena Vista Social Club”is a joyous celebration of the universal power of music in the human experience and to cultural identification. Let’s hope it finds a larger audience if Broadway-bound.