By: Paulanne Simmons
This is going to be a short review. The material does not need acute analysis.
December 18, 2023: Buena Vista Social Club, developed and directed by Saheem Ali, has extraordinary music and exquisite dancing. It is a delight to the eye and ear. But the play dies when the music stops. Buena Vista Social Club has almost no plot and merely adequate acting. Much of the dialogue and staging is clunky.
The book, by Marco Ramirez’s, is loosely based on the story of a 1950s Cuban band brought together years later to record what became a Grammy award-winning album in the 1990s, and the subject of a documentary in 1999. The musical alternates between scenes of the young band players back in Havana during the revolutionary 50s and scenes of the band recording years later, when the musicians are older and wiser.
The story goes like this: Omara Portuondo (Kenya Browne) and her sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza) are on the verge of making it big when Omara is introduced to the club and its musicians. She decides she’d rather be one of the people than go commercial, especially when she finds out her friend, singer Ibrahim Ferrer (Olly Sholotan), is not welcome onstage or on album covers because of his dark skin.
Omara refuses to go to the United States with her father and sister. But when the opportunity arises for her to clinch her own album deal, she abandons her hard-won ethics and leaves poor Ibrahim out in the cold.
Years later, Juan De Marcos (Luis Vega), a young Cuban producer, convinces Omara (Natalie Venetia Belcon) to be the lead singer on his album of Cuban oldies. Omara is reunited with many of her old friends. She realizes the evil of her past conduct and repents.
Of course the main personality onstage is the band. And does it sizzle! Who could help but dance to such music? Certainly choreographers Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck were inspired. And their pas de deux for Browne and Esperanza is magnificent.
If you don’t mind all the unnecessary talk this is a show you won’t want to miss.
Buena Vista Social Club ***
Runs through January 21, 2024
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20 Street
Photography: Ahron R. Foster