Buena Vista Social Club
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If any question persists whether “music is the universal language of mankind,” all you need to do is head to the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater to take in the wondrous new musical “Buena Vista Social Club” to prove this adage is true.
Indeed, I imagine many audience members, like me, will not understand a single word of the 16 Spanish-language songs performed by the outstanding cast of musicians and singers assembled by director Saheem Ali. Still, I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the heartache and joy entrenched in these tunes. Listening to them, you may want to dance in the aisles or cry in your seat.
The show’s title is likely to be familiar from the Oscar-nominated 1999 documentary of the same name – and the many albums that followed its release, However, Ali, creative consultant David Yazbek and, especially, playwright Marco Ramirez have taken a different approach to the material than the movie did.
Here, we’re focused on a story that both tells a little about some members of the club, along with the history of Cuba in both 1956, as the country is about to destroyed by the Communist revolution, and 1996, where the lack of aid from the US, and subsequently the USSR, plunges the island nation into poverty and isolation. (The narration of these events, by Luis Vega as young record producer Juan De Marcos, is a bit clumsy.)
Smartly, the show shows us both the younger and older versions of such key players as Ibrahim Ferrer (the very fine Olly Sholotan and Mel Seme), the smooth-voiced singer who was originally denied fame because of the color of his skin, the charming singer and guitarist Compay (Jared Macho and Julio Monge, equally ingratiating) and pianist Ruben (Leonardo Reyna and Jainardo Batista Sterling, both moving in their own ways.)
Still, the piece wisely focuses primarily on singer Omaro Portuondo (sweetly played as a young woman by Kenya Browne and powerfully embodied in later years by the truly remarkable Natalie Venetia Belcon), who remains a living legend at age 93. Famous as she is when we meet her in 1996, Omara is steeped in a world of loneliness and regret, rethinking the loss of any communication with her older sister Haydee (a forceful Danaya Esperanza) after she and her parents fled Cuba in 1956 or dwelling on not fighting hard enough to include Ibrahim in the band that was put together for her first recording contract that same year. For Omara, music is sometimes a source of great joy and sometimes a source of unbearable sorrow.
All of this unfolds on Arnulfo Maldonado’s impressive set, which performs multiple duties as the touristy Hotel Tropicana (where Omara and Haydee originally performed), a couple of recording studios, and most importantly, the actual Buena Vista Social Club.
Moreover, as she has done so often in recent years, Dede Ayite proves once more to be invaluable, creating a wide away of period-authentic and brightly colorful costumes that instantly put us in the right time and space. (Her costumes for Belcon, in particular, capture Portuondo’s regal look).
Most astonishingly Maldonado makes enough room on the Atlantic Stage for two dozen performers, including an ensemble of ultra-talented dancers, executing the sometimes sultry and often exuberant choreography of married couple Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. (That some of the moves are highly reminiscent of Peck’s work for the film version of “West Side Story” is not altogether surprising.)
So, right now, the hottest club in town is – rather surprisingly – the Atlantic Theater. I don’t care how cold it gets in New York, get yourself down there while you can!
By Brian Scott Lipton