‘Buena Vista Social Club’ Off Broadway Review: How Cuba’s Music Fuels Its Survival

A landmark album is now an exciting stage musical and dance spectacular

Jared Machado, Kenya Browne and Olly Sholotan in "Buena Vista Social Club" (Credit: Ahron R. Foster)
"Buena Vista Social Club" (Credit: Ahron R. Foster)

It has not been a great year for dance on the musical theater stage – until now. Choreographers Patricia Delgado and New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck bring it all to the tiny stage at the Atlantic Theater Company. The many dances this married duo has created for the new musical “Buena Vista Social Club” erupt in a chemical reaction where ballet, Afro-Cuban, contemporary and a variety of social dances both blend and slam into each other. 

Based on the 1996 album of the same title, “Buena Vista Social Club” opened with a glorious bang Tuesday at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater.

Although other cast members occasionally join in to salsa, Delgado and Peck basically work their magic with only six dancers who are so good they need to be credited at the top of this review: Skizzo Arnedillo, Angelica Beliard, Carlos Falu, Hector Juan Maisonet, Ilda Mason and Marielys Molina.

But “Buena Vista Social Club” is not a dance show nor is it a jukebox musical, even though about half of the musical’s 15 songs come from the original album. (The other songs are from the Buena Vista Social Club ensemble’s extended songbook.) Marco Ramirez’s multilayered book for “Buena Vista” tells the story of the making of the album in Havana, Cuba, which was a reunion of sorts for a number of singers and musicians who first performed together four decades earlier, in 1956.

Delgado and Peck’s choreography often helps to bridge those two radically different time periods of 1996 — when an impoverished Cuba continued to suffer from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. blockade — and 1956 — when a far more prosperous country was on the verge of revolution. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are never mentioned, but both the threat and the promise of a new way of life permeate Ramirez’s book.

Most in danger of being lost are the social clubs that produced the music that ended up on the 1996 album, the dream project of an enterprising young producer, Juan De Marcos (Luis Vega, who exudes optimism). Not featured in Ramirez’s loosely-based-on-the-facts story is the album’s official producer, American guitarist Ry Cooder.

In the typical jukebox musical, preexisting songs are jammed into a plot. That’s not the case here. The songs don’t further or in any way explain the story. They set a mood, they capture emotions and they are performed as those songs would have been originally delivered in Havana’s social clubs, hotel ballrooms and recording studios.

For this gringo reviewer, Ramirez’s story has shades of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “A Star Is Born” without the easy contrivance of a murder or a suicide to goose up the narrative, but with a big dollop of “Dreamgirls” thrown into the mix.

In 1956, the young singer Omara (Kenya Browne) performs with her sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza) in Havana’s tourist hotels, but her real love is singing with her boyfriend Ibrahim (Olly Sholotan) in the city’s social clubs, which are anathema to her far more ambitious sister. As fate would have it, the record producers (the triple-cast Vega) from America and Cuba have no interest in either Haydee or Ibrahim, drawn as they are racially to the more conventionally glamorous Omara. Haydee eventually escapes to America. Ibrahim is forgotten and recedes into the Cuban countryside.

Ramirez tells that story from the viewpoint of 1996 when the older Omara (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is engaged to make the “Buena Vista Social Club” album and she meets her old boyfriend Ibrahim (Mel Seme), now singing for small change on the streets of Havana. “Buena Vista Social Club” is the story of survival through the preservation of what artists do best, not only for them but a whole island and its culture.

With her absolute command of the stage, Belcon galvanizes and grounds the production in a performance that fulfills all the demands of August Wilson’s greatest female role, Ma Rainey. Belcon instills that same fear and awe without ever pushing it. This actor’s achievement is even more remarkable in light of her having created the role of Gary Coleman in the original production of “Avenue Q” over 20 years ago. The two roles belong in different theatrical universes — and yet, Belcon has made both of them very much her own.

It’s difficult to believe that her Omara, however, was ever the beautiful but wan young Omara presented by Browne. Belcon and Esperanza are a much better match-up. In one of the musical’s more phantasmagorical passages, the older Omara meets her long-estranged sister, now dead and speaking to her from the grave. It is less a meeting of two siblings than it is the same character confronting her own demons, separated by a few decades of experience. Playing the sister, Esperanza matches Belcon beat for beat, punch for punch, stab wound for stab wound.

The Belcon-and-Browne mismatch is a minor misstep on the part of Saheem Ali, who directs. As good as his work was on last season’s Broadway play “Fat Ham,” nothing there prepares you for what he does now. With “Buena Vista Social Club,” he goes to the top of the list of directors who stage musicals. His credits on this show also include “developed by,” which means he must be the mastermind behind the whole project.

There’s no telling where Delgado and Peck’s choreography ends and Ali’s direction picks up, which is as it should be. When the dancers aren’t dazzling us, there is Ali’s seamless use of Arnulfo Maldonado’s multi-level set to guide us between two radically different periods in Cuban history. There is also his fluid staging of a narrative that ends Act 1 with not one but four stories – one of them involves running illegal guns through the social club – and they all explode into a singular, spectacular climax.

I’ve never been to Havana, but watching this production provided me not only a telescope to that place, but to the past. The attention to historical detail here eschews the usual musical-theater glitz to favor what appears to be the real thing. In addition to Maldonado’s weathered set design, there are Dede Ayite’s costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and J. Jared Janas’ incredibly retro hair, wigs and makeup.

Shows this good don’t appear out of nowhere, and it’s telling that the year’s other great musical, “Days of Wine and Roses,” kicked off 2023 with its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company. Like that Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas musical, “Buena Vista Social Club” looks destined for Broadway, where it would fit beautifully into even the largest stage there.

Comments

One response to “‘Buena Vista Social Club’ Off Broadway Review: How Cuba’s Music Fuels Its Survival”

  1. Adriana Arias Avatar
    Adriana Arias

    It’s a pity you’ve never been to Havana. There is a dance company here (I’m writing from Havana, where I live), the Lizt Alfonso Dance Company, who years ago presented a musical that, according to your description, is in the same vein as “Buena Vista Social Club”, except the entire thing was excellently executed by Cubans. I worked as a stagehand in Miami for six years, did a few Broadway shows, and I knew immediately upon seeing “Amigas” in Havana that it had potential to be a sensational Broadway musical. Unfortunately, I do now have the connections to reach the Nederlanders (I really tried). I have not seen the “Buena Vista Social Club” show, but I can’t help to feel a little bitter. I only wish to see the day where actual Cubans (from Cuba) are given this kind of opportunity to shine and show the world what amazing talents they have. Congratulation to the artist who created “Buena Vista”. Here’s hoping that one day the Lizt Alfonso’s “Amigas” get the attention it deserves.

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