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Tropical!

By New York City

The halls of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center are alive with the sound of music as salsa, cumbia, merengue and Caribbean rhythms drift out of the center's La Tea Theatre and entice audiences to dance.

"Every time we hear a beating drum, the rhythm goes to our feet and moves through the body," explains Frank Rodriguez, the host of the energetic musical revue Tropical! "It's almost impossible to sit still--the rhythm traps you!" Willingly held captive, the audience of Tropical! discovers two hours of song and dance, comedy, showgirls, puppetry, and the fascinating rhythms of Latin music.

Producer/director Manuel A. Morán has gathered together a lively group of singers, dancers, and musicians to create this entertaining evening. Demonstrating that Latin music did not begin with Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca," Tropical! traces the vivacious music from the jungles of Africa to the streets of Miami and New York's Lower East Side. "A beautiful rainbow of people created this music!" boasts Rodriguez.

Written by Morán and Radamés Gavé, the revue's humor is provided by Rodriguez, who charmingly plays host as a hybrid of Jay Leno, Ricky Ricardos, and Family Feud's Richard Dawson. Between songs, his master of ceremonies interviews two special guests, and challenges audience members to a Name That Tune-style game show. The special "guests" include singer Celia Cruz and the mayor of Santa Domingo, who are represented by José López's wonderfully realistic puppets.

Unfortunately for non-Spanish speakers, the interviews, game show, and much of the evening's dialogue are performed en Español. The script is lost to people whose knowledge of the language is limited to "gracias" and "por favor". The show's promotional material promises that Tropical! will be "performed in Spanish and English simultaneously." Closer attention to this promise will make the dazzling Tropical! more accessible to English-speaking audiences.

Listed in the program simply as "singer," Ana Campos Stephens takes center stage to perform most of the evening's spicy musical numbers. Capturing the exuberance of Charo, and the sexuality of Jennifer Lopez, Stephens radiates with charm. On Jordi Garcia's vibrant set, Stephens is joined by a foursome of skilled dancers and singers: Antonio Saldanas, Siliva Sierra, Monica Oritz, and choreographer Jade Esteban Estrada.

The show's greatest strength is the enthusiasm of these entertainers, who beautifully perform Estrada's demanding routines with dazzling smiles not seen in a musical variety show since Donny & Marie. Throughout the evening, the colorfully costumed performers are backed up by a band of accomplished musicians, lead by musical director Jerome Van Rossum.

Musically, Tropical! is scintillating, and easily satiates anyone with a hunger for songs with a distinctive Latin flavor. Sampling the "greatest hits" of salsa, cumbia and merengue, it is an exciting adventure for theatergoers whose first taste of Latin music was Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" or the Miami Sound Machine's "Conga." For others, Tropical! is a joyous celebration of Latino culture and its music.

Tropical! appeals to children and adults alike. The evening I saw this delightful show, one young audience member was refreshingly eager to sing along to a merengue as if it was the latest hit from 'N Sync or Christina Aguilera. Morán and company should be applauded for capturing the Latin musical experience with such gusto. Salud!

Tropical! is one highlight of Latinoteatro 2000, a bilingual festival of music, comedies, dramas and programs for young adults. Offering a variety of entertainment, Latinoteatro 2000 features seven productions from five of New York's most innovative Latin American theatrical companies: Teatro La Tea, SEA (The Society of the Educational Arts), Teatro IATI, L.E.F.T (The Latino Experimental Fantastic Theater), and the Obie Award-winning Teatro Círculo. The festival runs through June 18.


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