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January 27, 2024
An Homage to the Cuban Artists of Yesterday
Buena Vista Social Club

Photo by David Foster

It’s the 1950’s, and the Cuban revolution is heating up outside, but the music inside the Buena Vista Social Club is even hotter. While the social club is defunct, the Cuban music remains.

The performance of Buena Vista Social Club at the Linda Gross Theater began as several musicians casually came onstage, chatting with one another. In no rush to start, they appeared to be catching up. and then they finally started to play. The incredibly talented 10- piece band, onstage most of the time, seemed to be as delighted playing for us as we, in the audience, were to be listening to them, marveling at their virtuosity.

The show has a very slight story. A young producer gets the opportunity to produce a record featuring all the old Cuban music, so he reaches out to vocalist Omara Portuondo (a majestic Natalie Venetia Belcon.) Haunted by events from her past, Omara has the reputation of being difficult. Music evokes certain troubling memories for her.

With a flashback 40 years earlier, the musical, with book by Marco Ramirez, presents a young Omara (Kenya Browne) and her sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza.) The two are a successful sister act at the upscale El Tropicana, performing for affluent white people. Omara is mortified when she learns about the racial prejudice of the club and that Ibrahim, a wonderful singer, had performed at the club out of sight because of his dark skin. Her guilt causes her to avoid meeting with a record producer, and to join Ibrahim singing at the club. Later when another record producer offers Omara a contract, he won’t allow Ibrahim to participate, citing his skin color. Omara chooses to remain behind in Cuba while her sister pleads with her to escape to America with her to avoid the oncoming revolution.

But the plot is just a device to present the music. Unlike the typical jukebox musical, the show makes no attempt to force the music into the story. All the songs are presented as performances in clubs or recording studios.

The list of 15 songs is in the Playbill, none of which I recognized and little of which I could translate. However, it didn't matter. The music was glorious and made more special by the fluid, sensuous dancing of the six dancers, choreographed by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck.

The show focuses on the four principal performers, Omara, Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Seme) guitarist-singer Compay Segundo (Jainardo Batista Sterling) and pianist Ruben Gozalez (Skizzo Arnedillo) and frequently flashed back 40 years to their younger selves.

The show, presented by The Atlantic Theater, is based upon a 1999 documentary showing how Ry Cooder assembled a group of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album. The album was named after a club in Havana that no longer exists where Black musicians gathered to perform. In 2020, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Director Saheem Ali (Fat Ham) with the assistance of his musical team, consisting of creative consultant David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit), music supervisor Den Sharenow and musical director, arranger and orchestrator Marco Pagula, has created a glorious musical event. The Buena Vista Social Club is like a Valentine , an enamorado, to the "artists of yesterday” who lived through the extremist times in Cuba, continuing to play the music they loved.


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New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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