Theater: “Buena Vista Social Club” at Atlantic Theater
Before “Buena Vista Social Club” was an album or a documentary, it was a broken-down social club in the lower middle class Marianao section of Old Havana. Here, old-school Cuban musicians would gather to shoot the breeze and of course play. Like many clubs that specialized in “son cubano,” a distinctly Cuban style of music, BVSC was segregated—a “socieadad negro”—and most of the patrons and performers were Black.
This fascinating bit of history is the basis for “Buena Vista Social Club,” the exuberant new off-Broadway musical at Atlantic Theater Company that is so full of energy it seems to be bursting at the seams.
The setting is 1996, when Cuba was beginning to open up to the world. Eliades, a young Cuban music producer (Renesito Avich)—and a stand-in of sorts for guitarist Ry Cooder who actually did produce the album—is given the chance to reunite old-school musicians and Cuban singers. To make an album, he really needs the cooperation of Omara (Natalie Venetia Belcon), a legendary but testy vocalist of a certain age who is reluctant to sign on.
The play then flashes back to 1956, when young Omara (Kenya Browne) and her sister (Danaya Esperanza) were singing kitschy tunes in touristy nightclubs while surrounded by dancers in feathers. One night, Omara is spotted by young Compay (Jared Maxhado), a hungry young musician. Impressed by her style and beauty, he takes her to the Marianao club, where she realizes she should be playing.
This sets up a conflict between the sisters as the older one wants no part of the troubled neighborhood or its music. She also sees the writing on the wall—the political strife beginning to overtake Cuba.
That’s it for the story: The real star attraction here is the music! All the great, hyperkinetic, and sometimes soulful Cuban songs performed in Spanish by an onstage band that would’ve made the original BVSC band members proud.
And not only do these men and women play but they can act! (Only in Nueva York.) Besides the aforementioned, the musical’s standouts include Leonardo Reyna as Ruben the pianist, Julio Monge as old Compay, and Olly Sholotan and Mel Seme as young and old Ibrahim Ferrer (the very dark-skinned Black lead singer), respectively.
The choreography is by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. Please note: If you are not sitting in your seat and swaying to the beat, along with the dancers, you need to check your pulse.
The original BVSC ensemble is no more. The Orquesta BVSC with some members of the original band still tours worldwide. If you can’t grab a ticket for them, try and get a seat at the Atlantic production. No passport required.
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