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Becoming Chavela

The true story of a famous Costa Rican lesbian singer by way of Mexico, as told by a Puerto Rican woman.

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Stephanie Trudeau as singer Chavela Vargas and guitarist Diego Cebollero in a scene from “Becoming Chavela” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Scotty Bennett

Scotty Bennett, Critic

Becoming Chavela, written by Stephanie Trudeau and directed by Joyce Callo, is a true story of a Costa Rican lesbian singer by way of Mexico, as told by a Puerto Rican woman. It began as a cabaret show about Chavela Vargas, a renowned singer of Mexican ranchera songs, and was performed worldwide to enthusiastic responses. As a result, there have been requests from audiences, theater critics, and journalists for the show to be expanded to include more of the remarkable story of Chavela Vargas and her life during the “golden age” of Latin American music from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

Trudeau does a superb job with that task as far as she is able to take it, including three original songs, but it still needs more exposition. Chavela Vargas was a larger-than-life character who needs, and deserves, a deep dive into who she was, with all the halos and horns being brought to life. This expanded production from the Bistro Award-winning cabaret show provides more about Vargas but lacks a more nuanced exploration of her mental and emotional character. Tantalizing aspects of her life, her time with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and the many American movie stars who frequented Mexico City are presented as illustrations of her life but leave us wanting to know more.

The show got me to look closely at Vargas and the ranchera musical style and to skim the cultural milieu of Mexico during the time of her career. It is a rich source of material for a much bigger show. This one is worth seeing and an excellent start, but it deserves much more. The musical In The Heights demonstrated there is an audience for stories about the Latin American experience.

Stephanie Trudeau, Ana Leon Bello and James Martinelli in a scene from “Becoming Chavela” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

The show opens with some biographical background by Trudeau, showing how her mother, extended family, and community shaped her interest in and love of music, especially the Latin American songs she associated with Puerto Rico. Trudeau discovered that the song “What a Difference A Day Makes” was based on the Mexican song “Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” and was not a translation. The origin of that song and others led her to want to know more about these Puerto Rican/Mexican songs. The quest brought her to the Mexican ranchera style and Chavela Vargas.

Ranchera is a style of traditional Mexican folk music with origins in the ranchos of rural Mexico. The songs are about love, patriotism, or nature and are usually sung by men. The vocals have a rough, raw quality in contrast to the more refined vocalizations of the urban singers. In Mexico City, Chavela defied the norms and sang rancheras with her style and interpretations while staying true to the rawness of delivery and the ideas expressed by the lyrics.

Trudeau transforms herself into Chavela with an on-stage costume change and then provides solid interpretations of some of Vargas’ classic rancheras as she takes the audience on an exploration of Vargas’ life in Mexico City, a brief time in Cuba and to the mid-1970’s when she stopped performing as a result of all the tequila she had consumed over the years. Although Trudeau’s voice is more refined, she still delivers the songs with all the passion and fire needed in some and the introspection and sadness in others. Her embodiment of Vargas is complete.

Stephanie Trudeau in a scene from “Becoming Chavela” at Theater for the New City (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

In 1991, Vargas ended her solitary life in Cuba and returned to Mexico City, clean and sober. All the friends from over the years were gone, and she truly felt alone. One evening, she went to El Habito, a club where she once sang, and was seen in the audience by the owner Liliano who asked her to sing. At first, Vargas said no, but Liliano convinced her to do it, and at the age of 72, that night revived her career. She continued to perform until two days before her death at the age of 92. She gained a new group of friends and supporters, including Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish movie director, who used her singing in all his movies. She only sang in concert halls for the remainder of her life, including Carnegie Hall when she was 83.

James Martinelli is the choreographer, costume designer, and a performer. He plays the famous ranchera composer Jose Alfredo Jimenez and dances with Ana Leon Bella in the musical interludes. Bella plays Liliana, the club owner, who helps revive Vargas’ singing career.

The set by David Wells is a café table and chairs, two upstage projection screens, and a stool. The music director, Diego Cebollero, provides the guitar music with the able support of Graham Doby on percussion. The production includes a multimedia presentation of images of the principal characters and clips from a movie being made by Trudeau in which Alison Davies and Edward Giron do voiceovers. David Nicolas Abad is responsible for the lighting and image design with graphic design by Vinny Ciulla.

Becoming Chavela (through January 7, 2024)

Theater for the New City

Cabaret Theater, Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call: 212-254-1109, or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission

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Scotty Bennett
About Scotty Bennett (68 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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