Review: Cuba’s Past Sings Out in ‘Buena Vista Social Club’

This jukebox musical alternates passionate renditions of Afro-Cuban music with scenes in English that chart the lives of musicians across four decades of love and loss.

The company of Buena Vista Social Club. Ahron R. Foster

Buena Vista Social Club | 2hrs. One intermission. | Atlantic Theater Company | 336 West 20th Street | 646-452-2220

Thirty-odd years ago you’d couldn’t escape the folk-world sonic vibe in New York’s bookstores and cafés, its musty thrift stores and East Village hipster dives. There was the hoarse yowling of the Gypsy Kings, bluegrass crooning from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the Gregorian-chant electronica of Enigma . . . and of course, the Buena Vista Social Club. Everyone knew about this band which “rediscovered” traditional Cuban dance music. I never actually saw the movie or bought the CD, but it was in the air. Now, thanks to the Atlantic Theater Company, I feel better acquainted.

True, my lack of Spanish puts me at a disadvantage when savoring the 15 piquant songs threaded through Buena Vista Social Club. At least, I think it does? Would it have helped to know that Faustino Oramas’s “Candela” (“Fire”) starts out being about a rat, a cat, and a kettle drum, and gets odder from there? In “Silencio,” would I be puzzled by the references to spikenard and Azucena—plants of which I’m ignorant? I’m going to assume most of these lyrics, frequently about heartbreak and nostalgia, are for poetic mood-setting rather than advancing a plot. Moreover, they have a social function beyond listening pleasure; they get you on your feet to rumba or embrace that special someone for a slow turn around the room.

Jared Machado as Young Compay, Kenya Browne as Young Omara, and Olly Sholotan as Young Ibrahim (from left) in Buena Vista Social Club. Ahron R. Foster

Handsomely staged by Saheem Ali, the jukebox musical’s main inspirations are the Social Club’s stars rather than Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary. It alternates the onstage band’s passionate renditions of Afro-Cuban son, danzón, and bolero with scenes in English that chart the lives of musicians and singers across four decades of love and loss. Notably trim, the show requires book writer Marco Ramirez to cram a lot of (fictionalized) back story into two hours. His main focus is a trio of friends that almost, but not quite, form a love triangle: the beautiful, rising vocal star Omara (Kenya Browne), irreverent guitarist Compay (Jared Machado), and the charismatic singer Ibrahim (Olly Sholotan)—whose darker complexion is perceived as a career liability. Colorism and class difference are two of the social barriers our protagonists must overcome, as their country lurches into revolution in the 1950s, splitting families and endangering the club scene.

Natalie Venetia Belcon as Omara and Kenya Browne as Young Omara in Buena Vista Social Club. Ahron R. Foster

Ramirez frames these episodes from the past with ones from the 1990s, a freely adapted retelling of the formation of the Buena Vista Social Club. Young and hungry music producer Juan De Marcos (Luis Vega) approaches Omara Portuondo, now an older and imperious recording artist played by the queenly Natalie Venetia Belcon. In contrast to her bubbly and sweet youth, Omara has grown a hard, protective shell; she suffers no fools and keeps her distance from the band in the studio. (“Bring up the vocals, Vicente,” she orders her offstage engineer. “Less band, more me.”) As the story unfolds, we learn that Omara’s still pained by the separation from her sister, Haydee (Danaya Esperanza)—who fled to America—and her estrangement from Ibrahim, whom she loved. Juan begs Omara to sing live with musicians once again, and this sets in motion a getting-the-band-back-together narrative. Enter the boozy and raffish older Compay (Julio Monge), who tracks down Ibrahim (Mel Semé), now a husband and father who sings for pesos on the boardwalk at sunset. 

Like the book, the physical production packs a lot into a small space. Arnulfo Maldonado’s efficient set blends elements of a Havana plaza with a sound-proofed recording studio. Dede Ayite’s colorful and flattering costumes (a plethora of fetching floral prints) leave plenty of give for the hip-swinging choreography by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. Bathing the space in hot nightclub reds or russet sunsets, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau imbues the stage with a palpable warmth. And the cast is immensely appealing, from the adorable Browne to Belcon’s forbidding diva. The voices can be rough and angelic at once; the rapid string work by guitar hero Renesito Avich is pure fire. For a brief time, our cold and fretful island becomes a different one, which has its troubles, but also a sound that brings the world to its door.

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Review: Cuba’s Past Sings Out in ‘Buena Vista Social Club’