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Buena Vista Social Club

Sizzling stage musical of the famed documentary film takes a different approach with the backstory to the now legendary recording session in Havana, 1996.

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Jared Machado as Young Compay on the guitar and the company of Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

While the exciting new stage musical Buena Vista Social Club shares the same name with the acclaimed 1999 documentary by Wim Wenders, playwright Marco Ramirez’s book for the new show takes a different approach to the true story now under the direction and development of go-to director Saheem Ali (Fat Ham) for new work by people of color. While the film took us to the recording studio and then interviewed or followed the daily lives of the major singers and musicians involved ultimately taking us to their July 1, 1998 Carnegie Hall concert, the stage show instead tells the 1956 backstory of several of the main characters after we meet them at the 1996 recording session.

Although the film made the male singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo the main characters, the musical puts the focus on recording star Omara Portuondo. Both approaches contain the original songs sung by the Cuban music group of old timers that came together in 1996 to record an album of almost forgotten Cuban songs making both versions documents of the highest authenticity.

Natalie Venetia Belcon as Omara and Julio Monge as Compay in a scene from the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The facts are told differently in the two versions. In the film documentary it is American guitarist Ry Cooder who gets the band together and is producer of the album. In the stage musical that role goes to the Cuban bandleader Juan De Marcos who also acts as narrator. He addresses the audience directly telling us that in 1996 Cuba was coming apart as the U.S blockage and the collapse of the Soviet Union made things economically difficult.

At the time, he was commissioned to produce a record of classic Cuban songs when his foreign musicians were unable to get to Havana. He approaches Cuban recording star Omara Portuondo to fill in the gap. When she asks why she wasn’t asked first, he reveals that his backers thought that she was difficult and she goes on to prove it, making demands such as she gets to pick her own band and singers. She approaches her old friend guitarist and singer Compay Segundo now reduced to working in the lobby of the Hotel National. When they begin recording old songs, Omara becomes overcome with emotion and is carried back to 1956 when she first became a singing sensation.

Jared Machado as Young Compay, Kenya Browne as Young Omara, Olly Sholotan as Young Ibrahim and the company of Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

On the eve of the Cuban Revolution, Omara and her older sister Haydee are the star attractions at The Tropicana nightclub singing Spanish songs for tourists in lavish musical revues. Rehearsing at home, they are sent guitarist Young Compay and pianist Young Ruben to substitute for musicians who are not available. This leads Omara to surreptitiously visit the working class music venue The Buena Vista Social Club where they normally perform in a Havana neighborhood that her sister would not set foot in. There she meets singer Young Ibrahim and they share a mutual attraction. Her life changed toward political liberation, she refuses to leave Cuba when her sister and family leave for Miami to escape the erupting revolution. When Omara is offered a recording contract in Havana by an American producer, she is faced with the problem that she cannot take young Ibrahim with her due to racism: he is too dark skinned for American audiences, this being the 1950’s and he insists she take the contract without him. The musical alternates between 1956 and 1996 when they are reunited after 40 years.

While the dialogue is all in English, the songs are sung in the original language which will give non-Spanish speakers a bit of a problem as they are listed in alphabetical order with only two (“Candela” and “Cumbanchero”) identified in the show. However, with eight songs from the film documentary and on the original Buena Vista Social Club recording and seven additional ones from their subsequent albums, it is possible to enjoy the rhythm and the emotion of the score (David Yazbek, consultant) without knowing what the words mean. The singing is enhanced by the torrid dances created by the husband and wife choreographic team Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck for the dancers in the Buena Vista club, The Tropicana floor show and the impressive ballet/modern dance variations for Omara and Haydee’s shadow dancers.

Natalie Venetia Belcon as Omara and Kenya Browne as Young Omara in a scene from the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

With many in the cast from the Caribbean, the show has an authenticity not always seen in musical productions until recently. All of the singing voices are impressive and most of the actors look like the originals they are impersonating. Natalie Venetia Belcon makes the older Omara an imperious creature of entitlement, while Kenya Browne as her younger counterpart is both conflicted and impressionable. As her sister Young Haydee, Danaya Esperanza is as controlling and demanding as Omara eventually becomes.

Both Jared Machado as young Compay and Julio Monge as the older Compay are suave and charming as depicted in the documentary. Olly Sholotan as Young Ibrahim is a man of integrity and spirit, while the older Ibrahim played by Mel Semé is given short shrift considering how much the recording did for his second career. As record producer Juan de Marcos, Luis Vega demonstrates both tenacity and perseverance. Jainardo Batista Sterling makes a strong impression as the older pianist Rubén who comes back to life while attending the 1996 recording session after years in a twilight world, while the sizzling piano is played by Leonardo Reyna as Young Rubén through most of the show.

The company of Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater (Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster)

The two-story unit set by Arnulfo Maldonado cleverly incorporates the Buena Vista Social Club, the Tropicana nightclub, the seafront at El Malacón and the home of the Portuondo sisters. Dede Ayite’s costumes alternate between very colorful for the nightclub act and plain for the working class club and time under Communist rule. The lighting by Tyler Micoleau enhances the setting without ever upstaging the show. Jonathan Deans’ sound design is exactly what the show needs. J. Jared Janas is responsible for creating varied appearances for the women characters in terms of hair, wigs and makeup.

The stage version of Buena Vista Social Club is a hot musical creating an entirely different take on the events than that of the award-winning documentary film. Although the riveting book by Marco Ramirez, author of the acclaimed play The Royale, has a complicated structure, the use of the double cast makes it simple to follow the events of the two time periods. The score is still as scorching as it was on the recording and in the film. The magnificent cast is completely convincing playing real people and the singing and dancing are superlative. Under imaginative direction of Saheem Ali, it looks like the Atlantic Theater Company has another winner in this world premiere musical which should have a larger life.

Buena Vista Social Club (extended through January 28, 2024)

Atlantic Theater Company

Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-452-2220 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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