BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB's Rhythm of Life - Review
“These old songs, they kick up old feelings”
That’s the cash-grabbing thought process behind most jukebox musicals, biomusicals, or stage adaptations, which bank on the artlessness of nostalgia to turn an easy profit. Yet, while it ostensibly checks all three of those boxes, Buena Vista Social Club, adapted by playwright Marco Ramirez from the 1997 album of the same name, is an exquisitely crafted work of cultural triumph and wistfulness.
Directed by Saheem Ali and staged at the appropriately intimate Atlantic Theatre, it traces the lead-up to, and early recording sessions of, that culture-shifting album, which reunited a group of Cuban performers whose heyday the Revolution had vanished. Their music director, Juan de Marcos Gonzáles, is credited as a consultant, and the production, brimming with gifted Latine actors, dancers, and musicians, feels refreshingly genuine.
Tasked with overseeing the Havana-based production of what was meant to be a collaboration between Malian and Cuban musicians, Gonzáles (here played by Luis Vega) must improvise when the African artists’ visas fall through. He approaches legendary singer Omara Portuondo (Natalie Venetia Belcon) in the hopes she’ll lend her vocals, and some historical gravitas, to the album, which is meant to bring the country’s native mid-century genres to a world audience.
Aged into a bit of a diva—her career having been able to extend globally while her peers’ suffered the effects of the American embargo—Portuondo agrees on the condition she gets to approve each session player. She enlists some old friends, including singers Compay Segundo (Julio Monge) and Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Semé), as well as pianist Rubén González (Jainardo Batista Sterling), whose mind has deteriorated with time.
Sterling’s performance hints at Alzheimer’s and, as the music draws him from the hollows of his mind, is emotionally very effective; a single gesture—slowly getting up to embrace his distant colleague—nearly undid me. It might not be entirely factual, and Ramirez has said his work aims for emotional truth rather than total reality.
That’s where the play’s parallel storyline comes in, filling in the significance of this 1996 reunion with a portrait of the final days of pre-Revolutionary Havana, when tourist cashflow kept young Omara (Kenya Browne) and her sister, Haydée (Danaya Esperanza), decked in gorgeous dresses (by Dede Ayite), and the musicians (Jared Machado, Leonardo Reyna, and Olly Sholotan) gainfully employed at the namesake club. Ramirez poignantly captures what was lost when Cuba became sealed off: the exuberant forward momentum of a nation on the brink of worldwide cultural recognition.
Though the specter of American intervention hovers over both sides of the narrative, it is not mined for all its tragically relevant importance. The dollars that fueled Cuba’s rise as a tropical playground in the early 20th century were the same ones withheld once the U.S. took its business elsewhere, and which then picked the country back up when the best-selling album (produced by the American Ry Cooder and the British Nick Gold) revived interest in its culture.
The producers and their homelands are briefly mentioned twice, by Gonzáles, and while keeping the emphasis on the Cuban artists is commendable, it should be pointed out that it’s not the fickle finger of fate that has guided these people’s lives so much as Uncle Sam’s heavy hand.
A similar international battle occurs in the choreography, handled by the husband-and-wife team of Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck. Both present lovely work, but Peck’s balletic contributions seem a superfluous way for outsiders to feel their way into the Latin rhythm while Delgado’s is right at home. The inclusion of shadow dancers to follow the Portuondo sisters’ relationship (on top of the two’s younger acting counterparts) is entirely unnecessary and, with a brisk runtime of just over two hours (including intermission), dance could be better employed to fill in characters’ stories.
But the terrific ensemble carries the weight of the story's history and the beauty of its culture with passion and understanding, especially its older members, who look right at home in Arnulfo Maldonado’s faded colonial set. Every number, be it joyous or melancholy, bursts with life, and Belcon, Monge, and Semé bring the house down with faithful yet personal interpretations.
The album, with its lightning-in-a-bottle artistry and soul, granted its gifted contributors a larger chance at immortality through art. So too does this Buena Vista Social Club allow us to meditate on what is lost when art and life are devalued, and the glory that comes given the proper space to grow.
Buena Vista Social Club is in performance through January 21, 2024 at the Atlantic Theatre on West 20th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.