By: Isa Goldberg
Buena Vista Social Club @ The Atlantic
December 23, 2023: Aged walls, stained with cigar smoke, sing the tale of Buena Vista Social Club. A tale about two sisters torn apart by violence and revolution, it evokes the period of civil strife, and social unrest that led to Castro’s ascent in Cuba, beginning in the 1950’s.
Such beautiful music is difficult to part with – it makes separation seem all that more difficult. But like the separation between sisters, the division in Cuban society that erupted into Castro’s dictatorship, fell on the heels of a culture spiked by high society, grand entertainment, international tourism, booze, and Cuban cigars.
Fortunately, the 1996 Buena Vista album and Wim Wender’s documentary that followed, brought attention to the culture, and music of Cuba at a time when Cuban society was highly unstable…after the fall of the Soviet Union. Because of that, and the US blockade, the country was left with very few resources, and a greatly diminished economy.
There is so much history to these songs, that hearing them performed live on stage is a spiritual experience. It’s breathtaking. And it’s about that music…where it came from; the people who created it; and what it meant to go to the social clubs where it was performed.
As we can see here, the music came from the indigenous culture. Cuban people created it, and handed it on from generation to generation. Others, throughout the 40s and 50s’s commercialized it for high society tourists who flocked to flashy shows at Hotel Nacional, and the Tropicana.
That is where Omara, our lead singer begins her career, in 1956, guided by an older wiser sister, and their wealthy parents. And that is where they will part. Omara to join her bus boys in the social clubs where they sing about people who want freedom, and Haydee (Danaya Esperanza) to flee with her parents to safety in the United States.
Framing the story, the older performers – it’s 1996 – look back at their youth, as the youth look forward to planning their own futures. Opening with Latin Grammy nominee, Renesito Avich as Eliades, an older musician who once accompanied the popular Omara, we’re introduced to the tres, a six-string guitar from the early 19th century, first used in Afro-Cuban musical genres.
More modern rhythms like the bolero, a traditional love song, abound in well-known songs, like Chan Chan. And Candela, an exuberant song of the Son Cubano genre, is a blending of Cuban and African cultural influences –an ecstatic celebration of assimilation.
Patricia Delgado’s & Justin Peck’s choreography is delightful – even lifting a chair onto a table becomes an act of artistry. Sweeping through the play, the popular dances of the day create the flurry of life – the sense of community. Partner dances like the Cha Cha, the official dance genre of Cuba, mambo, rhumba, and Salsa express the beauty and purpose of their social rites.
That each of the musicians is outstanding makes the show enormously entertaining. Hery Paz, a bearish looking man, blows the heck out of a flute, and Leonardo Reyna’s piano fingers are no fall from grace. The bango, drum players, and guitarists are wonderful.
Written by Marco Ramirez, the play starts out with the languid pacing of people moving through heat, in a place where time itself feels beautiful, and like it could never end. As time gives space for thought, and the older performers learn from their younger selves, the now aging performers break through their stories, to achieve their youthful dreams.
Now in her later years, Omara engages Eliades to help her record a new album. Inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of a young producer, vigorously played by Luis Vega. When Omara drops her guard, and comes out of her self-imposed isolation, the story of her life unfolds.
Interestingly, the shifts in time between 1956 to 1996 blend the story. The frame is never jarring. In fact, time is the gauze through which Omara revels herself to herself, and is able to heal. Both Omara, played by Natalie Venetia Belcon, and the younger Omara, played by Kenya Browne are soulful actors/singers.
Marco Ramirez’s fictional story adds a level of truth to Buena Vista Social Club that director Saheem Ali fulfills. Creative consultant David Yazbek’s ingenuity in bringing music to the world is recognizable, if only in the background.
Grounded in the music of Cuban people, the influx of cultures that inspired it, and the destiny of the people who lived it, this story of a social club is truly inspirational. After all, it is about community, about what we need to keep to sustain our lives, and to survive in our hearts.
Buena Vista Social Club at The Atlantic *****
Runs through January 21, 2024
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20 Street
Photography: Ahron R. Foster