Sully Diaz and Eddie Marreroin La Lupe(Photo: Martha Holmes)
Sully Diaz and Eddie Marrero
in La Lupe
(Photo: Martha Holmes)
Latinos are flocking to see the musical La Lupe, and they're not the only ones. The show, written by Carmen Rivera, is based on the true story of the Cubano singer Victoria Lupe Yoli--known as La Lupe--who rose to fame as the Queen of Salsa in New York and around the world in the 1960s and '70s. La Lupe was an extraordinary entertainer who got so caught up in her music that, during a performance, she might throw off her wig, hurl her jewelry out to the audience, or physically attack band members. She was so wild that people often assumed, erroneously, that she was on drugs.

La Lupe recorded 30 albums, sang with Tito Puente for six years, and had a successful solo career that made her one of Latin music's first crossover stars; she played Carnegie Hall and hit the TV talk-show circuit, appearing many times on the Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin shows. Then came the fall--literally: While hanging drapes in her home, she tumbled over and was seriously injured. Her career, like the vertebrae in her back, was shattered.

This fall is the crux of the drama in La Lupe, and it's also the most glaring flaw in the show. The actual moment in which La Lupe loses her balance and takes the plunge is well staged; the problem is the heavy-handed way in which the audience is constantly reminded that the tragedy is coming. This miscalculation is part and parcel of an awkwardly structured musical play.

Rivera tells La Lupe's story as a series of flashbacks. After having faded into obscurity, La Lupe arrives at the office of a professor who has given her an "F" on her autobiographical essay because he assumes she invented the whole story. The play that follows is a reenactment of what she wrote in her essay: The true story of La Lupe. Periodically, and excruciatingly, we return to the professor who still refuses to believe the facts of La Lupe's incredible journey. So, on she must go with her story. Why not just tell her tale straightforwardly, without all of these arch plot devices? Thank goodness this is a musical biography; included are about a dozen songs from La Lupe's repertoire, performed full out, and they are the reason to see this show.

Sully Diaz plays the title role with considerable fire, portraying La Lupe from girlhood to approximately age 50 (the singer died in 1992 at 52). Diaz is most convincing when in performance as La Lupe. Four other actors play a variety of characters throughout the show and two of them, in particular, are exceptional. Eddie Marrero shows genuine range as La Lupe's father, her husband, and the superintendent of a shelter, not to mention Tito Puente. Also memorable is Marly Rivera who, among other roles, excels as La Lupe's stepmother and as a kindly nurse. Gilberto Arribas and Monica Perez-Brandes also provide solid support.

Luis Caballero directs the musical scenes with confidence and panache and also lends some style to the lumbering book. A. Christina Giannini has swathed the actors in brightly colored costumes that are as exuberant as the music. Happily, that music lives on, as does La Lupe: A film about her life is reportedly in development and many of her albums have been re-released on CD. Until a better vehicle comes along, La Lupe is a serviceable introduction to her story.

La Lupe has just moved from the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre to the larger Theatre Four on West 55th Street. It's important to note that some of the performances are in Spanish only, others are in English. You should make sure that the show you plan to attend is in a language you can understand.