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  • Jonathan Kalb

Cuban Just So Stories



Buena Vista Social Club—a wonderfully infectious and sexy collection of golden-age Cuban music featuring all-but-forgotten virtuosic Cuban musicians in their 70s and 80s—has been wrapped in nostalgia and wish-fulfillment since its first release as an album in 1997. It was produced and brilliantly marketed by the American musician Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold and touched a tender nerve in the post-Soviet West. Thirty- and forty-somethings who were baffled by the novelties of rap and electronica (Cooder called them “the Jeep Cherokee set”) proved ripe for this record’s acoustic artistry and exotic Afro-Cuban idioms. And with the Castro government reluctantly opening up to tourism after the collapse of the USSR, the album powerfully dangled the dream of recovering a storied, bygone world of prerevolutionary Cuban nightlife, untainted by mafia thugs.


It sold by the millions, jump-started the careers of its neglected performers, spun off an Oscar-nominated documentary by Wim Wenders, and now, 26 years later, has spawned an American stage musical. Branding is a wondrous thing. It works like a magic spell allowing the pleasures of familiarity to float free and innocent above unpleasant history—history, for instance, like America’s trade embargo of Cuba, which has caused untold suffering over 63 years and never forced the slightest increase in ordinary Cubans’s freedom. The embargo might as well never have existed for all the album’s 1930s and 40s son and bolero numbers are concerned. At least Cooder and Gold made sure the musicians were paid. We consumers, meanwhile, have for the most part mooned over the album’s timeless jacket photo of Ibrahim Ferrer striding past a vintage Studebaker and imagined ourselves transported to a paradisiacal island playground where everything is forever rhythmically and mythically just so and the revolution possibly never occurred.


Now, before anyone gets too mad at me, let me just say that I’ve been as seduced as anyone by the record’s charms. I loved it from first hearing (and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Jeep Cherokee). Furthermore, I was thoroughly seduced by this new musical, which, to its credit, tries to blend thick nostalgia with a bit of historical context (the book is by Marco Ramirez). Mostly, though, the show is a platter of musical delight, with crack live versions of the songs set to snazzy, pulsing, ballet-inflected dances choreographed by the husband-wife team Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. Developed and directed by Saheem Ali, Buena Vista is fast-paced, steamy, and undemanding. It feels like spending two hours in an exhilarating nightclub from your grandparents’ time where no song is second-rate and every patron could be Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. They’re all having the time of their life, and so is the audience. As far as I could tell, the people around me at the Atlantic Theater were too busy tapping their feet to worry much about the many holes in the decidedly thin, get-the-old-band-back-together story.


In real life, the recording session that birthed the album was a last-minute improv arrangement. Cooder had booked two guitarists from Mali to collaborate with some Cubans playing traditional Cuban instruments with African roots (he’d long been interested in such cross-cultural connections), but the Malians never arrived due to visa problems. With the help of a Cuban folklorist and bandleader, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, he and Gold changed plans and tracked down a bunch of older, legendary local musicians, gathered them in a vintage RCA Victor studio (built in the 1940s and still using its original equipment), recorded versions of beloved old songs played with next to no preparation, and sat back to realize the results were miraculous.


In the play, Ramirez (best known for The Royale at Lincoln Center in 2016) has erased Cooder and Gold (the former was central to Wenders’s documentary) and made Juan de Marcos the main organizer and guardian of authenticity and folk pride. No white heroes on this project, where (according to a preview article in The New York Times) “identity reconstruction” was central. All collaborators reportedly had to have Cuban roots or some other direct connection with the album, and all the lyrics remain in untranslated Spanish. The story takes many liberties with fact.


The play’s Juan de Marcos, played with self-effacing fearlessness by Luis Vega, interrupts a solo session by famous Omara Portuondo (played by Natalie Venetia Belcon, whose alto voice is stunning) to entice her to join the session. She recruits old friend Compay Segundo (Julio Monge), and that triggers flashbacks to the 1950s when she was a pretty young star from a wealthy family, performing with her sister Haydee at expensive hotels. Haydee will flee to America after the revolution and beg Omara to come along, but she prefers slumming at the scruffy Buena Vista Social Club in disreputable Marianao. A central plot thread traces Omara’s regret at never speaking to Haydee again.


Another involves a love interest between young Omara and the penniless young Ibrahim Ferrer, which also veers into betrayal. Ferrer, a sublime sones singer who was famously retired and shining shoes when invited to Cooder’s recording session, is here depicted as Omara’s natural duet partner and also a victim of despicable colorism. Both before and after the revolution, we see producers and club owners refusing him featured billing and stage time because of his dark skin. That Omara accepts this at one point for the sake of her career seeds yet another regret, and an effort to correct the injustice by featuring Ibrahim on the album.





Interestingly enough, three of the band’s featured musicians—Omara, Ibrahim, and the pianist Rubén Gonzalez—have been double-cast with a younger and older actor, and yet only one of these pairs is used to clear advantage in the show. Both Belcon and Kenya Browne, who plays the younger Omara, are splendid singers. But neither Mel Semé (Ibrahim) nor Olly Sholotan (Young Ibrahim) manages to evoke the distinctive, richly careworn timbre of the real Ferrer’s voice, which dominates the Buena Vista album (appearing on 8 of its 14 tracks—on 5 as lead vocal). As for the pianist Gonzalez, his doubling is puzzling and thankless. The younger actor, Leonardo Reyna, is a fine keyboardist. But the older actor, Jainardo Batista Sterling, barely noodles a piano and mostly appears as a doddering woolgatherer. (Compay: “He doesn’t play anymore. He’s just here for the catering.”) That simply won’t fly with anyone who remembers Wenders’s film, in which the 80-year-old Gonzalez’s astonishingly agile, arthritic fingers are a constant feast for the camera.


The script has other curious omissions. It fails to explain, for instance, why the titular social club has to be closed after the revolution, even though it’s a gathering place for unprivileged people sympathetic to the Communist cause. Or who the racist producer is who cajoles Omara into betraying Ibrahim at the moment when capitalism is crumbling (how and why is he “starting [his] own record label” then?). Or what any of the band’s extraordinary musicians actually think of Communism, in their heart of hearts.


I suppose it's possible that answering these questions might have added too much length, or factuality, or serious politics, to the show, possibly compromising the enchantment of its delightful dramatized concert. The album’s songs are that alluring and magnetic, especially paired with Delgado and Peck’s sizzling dances, that they can carry the 2-hour evening despite Ramirez’s thin book. Nevertheless, the holes in his story are interesting and gaping enough that they leave you wondering why a slightly more critical relationship to the nostalgia and ahistorical mythology that launched the album to the stratosphere couldn’t have worked. We have, after all, seen that with Brecht/Weill, Sondheim, Sheik/Slater, and many others. Sometimes complicated stories sell well too, even in musicals.


Photos: Ahron R. Foster


Atlantic Theater Company

Book by Marco Ramirez

Music by Buena Vista Social Club

Choreography by Patricia Delgado & Justin Peck

Developed and directed by Saheem Ali



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