By: Samuel L. Leiter
December 18, 2023: Two recently opened shows raise the question: how do you turn a popular documentary film into a successful stage musical? The creators of Broadway’s middling How to Dance in Ohio keep the structure of the original storyline about a group of autistic persons while supplementing it with fictional subplots. Familiarity with the film, while not essential, helps one to keep the balance between truth and fiction in perspective. For me, the resulting imbalance was one of several reasons the show failed to excite me.
Off Broadway’s sensational Buena Vista Social Club, based on a 1999 Wim Wenders documentary about a group of aging Cuban musicians who created the eponymous, Grammy-winning, worldwide bestselling album in 1996, is also a combination of facts and fiction. There were recording sessions, of course, but how much of the backstory is contrived is unclear, although the characters bear the names of the original performers. “Some of what follows is true,” we’re told early on, “Some of it only feels true.” The story we get is sufficiently convincing—unlike some of what transpires in How to Dance in Ohio—to provide a world and characters, a time and place, against which the thrillingly vibrant Afro-Cuban music comes to life. Judging by the electric effect it’s having on audiences at the Atlantic Theater, it deserves to move uptown.
The album’s premise was the actual reunion of a band of once-esteemed, mostly retired musicians whose careers withered during Fidel Castro’s regime, but who were rounded up by American Ry Cooder (who plays no part in the musical) and Cuban Juan de Marcos (Luis Vega). In Marco Ramirez’s book, Juan is anxious to make an album of Cuba’s golden oldies using performers from when Batista was in power, but who stayed behind instead of leaving Cuba when Fidel Castro’s revolution imperiled the venues at which bands like this performed.
Juan begins by making entreaties to the imperious diva Omara Portuondo (Natalie Venetia Belcon, magnificent as the now 93-year-old icon), a star who insists on doing everything her way. Resistant at first, she eventually agrees, which brings her back in touch with the men of her past. This sets up a structure that allows the show to toggle between 1996 and 1956, with the leading roles doubled to represent both the characters’ younger and older selves. Fifteen songs, more than half from the original album, fill the Linda Gross Theater with inexpressible joy and spirit, helping make the show as much a concert as a book musical.
One central conflict is between Young Omara (Kenya Browne) and her sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza), with whom, in 1956, she shares an increasingly successful act performing for tourists at the Tropicana Hotel. When Cuba’s troubles heat up, Haydee decides to flee for the USA, but Omara, who wants only to “sing for our people,” can’t bring herself to do so.
Partly that’s because of her relationship to a talented Black performer, Ibrahim (1956: Olly Sholotan; 1996: Mel Semé), with whom she chooses to perform at a déclassé, non-discriminatory joint called the Buena Vista Social Club. Racial issues in the music business, however, prevent them from continuing their budding partnership.
Crowded within Arnulfo Maldonado’s marvelous three-walled set, with a large arch at either side and architectural features that allow it to resemble a decaying old hotel lobby, a seedy night club, a recording studio, and so on, is a cast of 17, backed by a ten-member, always-present band. Saheem Ali’s inventive staging, David Yazbek’s creative consultation, Tyler Micoleau’s exceptionally evocative lighting, and Dede Ayite’s impeccable period costumes make you feel like you’re in Havana, even if you’ve never been there.
Choreographers Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, working with a limber team of six exuberant dancers, offer a cornucopia of Latin dancing, some of it balletic, much of it ballroom, all of it exciting, that will have you swaying in your seat, dancing with an imaginary partner in your head, and feeling your years and cares fall away. As others have noted, it’s almost impossible not to want to dance in place (as some did during the closing number when I attended). You may even beat your kneecaps like bongos.
Most of the audience will not understand the all-Spanish lyrics, but the emotional and rhythmic meaning of the music is never in doubt, ranging from sentimental to joyous, with the accent on the latter. The songs in this jukebox musical are not there to tell a story or to reveal character but, being performed in a recording studio or nightclub setting, simply to be enjoyed.
Whether they’re sung by any of the marvelous singers—like Belcon, Browne, Semé, or Sholotan—or performed by virtuoso musicians—like tres player Eliades (Renesito Avich), flutist Hery Paz, pianist Rubén (1956: Leonardo Reyna; 1996: Jainardo Batista Sterling), or singer-guitarist Compay (1956: Jared Machado; 1996: Julio Monge)—you can’t escape their power. There’s a predictable but nonetheless unforgettable moment when the haughty Omara refuses to allow flute music, which she disparages, to accompany her when she sings “Candella”; when the woodwind player joins in anyway, his trilling brilliance overcomes her resistance and melodic magic fills the stage.
Another recent Atlantic musical, Days of Wine and Roses, which received mixed reviews, is soon to open on Broadway, even though it’s something of an emotional downer. I wish it luck but, if Broadway’s looking for something everyone agrees will lift people’s spirits, they need look no further than Buena Vista Social Club. If music be the food of love, there’s plenty to feast on here.
Buena Vista Social Club *****
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th Street, NYC
Through January 21, 2024
Photography: Ahron R. Foster