Micaela Spina, Juan Cupini, and band member Julio Dominguez in Arrabal, directed by Sergio Trujillo, at the American Repertory Theater.
Micaela Spina, Juan Cupini, and band member Julio Dominguez in Arrabal, directed by Sergio Trujillo, at the American Repertory Theater.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

Once upon a time there was an orphan girl named Arrabal who set out to discover why her father left her 18 years earlier, when she was a baby, leaving her only a red scarf as a memento. Unlike the typical sounds of a Disney fairytale-inspired musical, Arrabal has been set to flaming tango dance and tango-rock-fusion music.

Arrabal's journey, though similar to Cinderella's, does have one major difference: Arrabal's father, Rodolfo, is one of the desaparecidos — the "disappeared," victims of the brutal military regime in Argentina, led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, who was in power from 1976 to 1981. The title character of this musical serves as a symbol of the thousands of families who continue to mourn their lost loved ones.

With a score and lyrics by the Argentinian composer, Gustavo Santaolalla (head of the electro-rock tango collective Bajofondo), and a book by John Weidman, the show has blazed into American Repertory Theater under the direction of Sergio Trujillo, with Julio Zurita serving as cochoreographer. The ensemble of superb tango dancers and a five-piece band, placed on a balcony over the stage, are from Argentina, which adds a level of poignancy to their performances.

The 90-minute production proceeds from current day through flashbacks to the events of the time period when Rodolfo disappeared. A great deal has been made about constructing a narrative that unfolds totally by means of dance, augmented by gestures and facial expressions with no dialogue. But this manner of presentation fits the genre of story-ballet, similar to Swan Lake, but with a 20th-century, totalitarian edge. The lyrics are sung in Spanish, without translation.

Arrabal (Micaela Spina) is compelled to leave home, where she lives with her abuela (Marianella Massarotti), after she receives a letter from her father's best friend, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola), the proprietor of an underground tango nightclub. The letter is delivered by El Duende (Mario Rizzo), a mysterious character who functions as a master of ceremonies of sorts and helps lead Arrabal on the path to becoming an adult.

Along her journey, the innocent Arrabal must overcome a jealous rival and an encounter with a gang of rapacious street toughs before she is rescued and brought to safety by her handsome prince, the sexy and tender Juan (Juan Cupini).

The tango dancing by the leads and the ensemble takes on every emotion, augmented by Spina, who embodies fragility and a can-do spirit in her balletic solos and a mean pair of legs in her tango duets with Cupini. Rizzo is a marvel of eccentricity, combining body contortions, magic tricks, and American street dance with an otherworldly presence. Rivarola and Valeria Celurso bring a succulent maturity to their partnering. Zurita, who also appears as Rodolfo, is a tragic dancing figure determined to return to his child and best friend.

The splendid spectacle of music and dance takes place on a bare stage, backed by vivid, quickly moving projections designed by Peter Nigrini, that incorporate newsreel images and photographs of the disappeared. Clint Ramos' costumes help tell the story and fill it with colorful tango dresses, fitted just so over the hips and flaring with every kick of the heels at the hemline.

Given the Broadway credentials of the show's creative team and the sizzling virtuosity of this cast of performers and musicians, it is hard not to fathom that they have their eyes set on the Great White Way. With its palatable folk structure combined with the edginess of its political overtones, Arrabal's dance from Boston to New York seems like the perfect ending for this modern fairytale.