Review: Legendary Cuban Musicians Come to Life in an Electric Buena Vista Social Club

Saheem Ali directs a new musical inspired by a world-famous recording.

New York Music Photographer
Jared Machado, Kenya Browne, and Olly Sholotan in Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Saheem Ali, at Atlantic Theater Company
(© Ahron R. Foster)

In 1996, an album was made over six days in Havana, Cuba, that would soon become a staple in Spanish-speaking households all over America. The record was named simply after the ensemble that created it, the Buena Vista Social Club. It comprised 14 tracks, many of them Cuban standards in the son style of the 1940s and ’50s, and went on to win a Grammy in 1998. As though the world could not get enough, an Oscar-nominated documentary was made about how the group came together and played Carnegie Hall. Since then, the record has become one of the best-selling Latin albums of all time.

It seems the world still can’t get enough, and when you see the ensemble come to life onstage in the new musical Buena Vista Social Club, now running in an exhilarating world-premiere production at Atlantic Theater Company, you’ll understand why. Marco Paguia leads a top-notch band that brings fresh renditions to a host of songs from the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire, and Marco Ramirez’s book provides a nostalgic look at the city of Havana as the Cuban Revolution came to a head in 1959. Together with Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck’s colorfully cyclonic choreography, Buena Vista Social Club is one of the most invigorating, joyous, and soul-satisfying shows playing in New York right now.

That’s due largely to Ramirez, creative consultant David Yazbek, and director Saheem Ali’s decision to take the music and the stories of the musicians in a fresh direction. At the top of the show, bandleader Juan De Marcos (suave performance by Luis Vega) tells us that what we’re about to see “is in no way a historical account.” Instead, the musical blends the lives of the band members with a fictionalized plot that conjures the milieu of 1950s Havana. No documentary-style storytelling here; this is mythmaking at its best.

New York Music Photographer
The cast of Buena Vista Social Club at Atlantic Theater Company
(© Ahron R. Foster)

It begins with Juan trying to record an album of Cuban songs with a group of old-school greats, starting with bolero singer Omara Portuondo (a majestic Natalie Venetia Belcon). Omara agrees to the project on the condition that she have final say about whom she works with. Among the all-but-forgotten artists she wants are guitarist Compay Segundo (a devilishly charming Julio Monge), guitarist Eliades Ochoa (Renesito Avich landing one-liners with ease), pianist Rubén González (a dashing Jainardo Batista Sterling), and Afro-Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Semé in a memorably moving performance).

Soon, however, songs like “¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” and “Veinte Años” (all songs are in Spanish) draw us into the past, where we meet young versions of Omara (Kenya Browne), Compay (Jared Machado), Rubén (Leonardo Reyna), Ibrahim (Olly Sholotan), and Omara’s sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza). Omara and Haydee are on the brink of landing a record deal, but the dangers of staying in Cuba during the revolution causes a rift between them. Meanwhile, Omara’s working (and possibly romantic) relationship with Ibrahim runs aground when a producer refuses to sign him because “he’s not someone whose face I can put on an album cover.”

Ramirez and Ali use these flashback scenes to capture the tense political climate and overt racial discrimination in a turbulent, segregated Cuba (the original Buena Vista Social Club was a members-only nightclub that catered to Black patrons). As Juan says in the beginning, these episodes “feel true” even though they’re not necessarily biographically accurate. Arnulfo Maldonado’s impressive set, with its old-world architecture and fixtures, contributes to this irresistible illusion of the past along with Dede Ayite’s period-inspired costumes, which seem to take on a life of their own during Delgado and Peck’s swirling dance sequences.

New York Music Photographer
Natalie Venetia Belcon plays Omara, and Julio Monge plays Compay in the world premiere of Buena Vista Social Club at Atlantic Theater Company
(© Ahron R. Foster)

The music, however, is really what drives the show forward, with the story always in service to the score. The theater positively erupts with songs like “Chan Chan,” “Candela,” and “Que Bueno Baila Usted,” the band’s supercharged brass section sparkling under Tyler Micoleau’s pyrotechnic lighting, and sounding crisp as a firecracker thanks to Jonathan Deans’s sound design. With 14 songs packed into two hours and 10 minutes, Buena Vista Social Club can sometimes seem more like a concert. More than once I had to fight the urge to stand up and dance in my seat.

Several cast members make us want to rise to our feet as well. Brown and Esperanza thrill with their golden voices in “El Cumbanchero”; Sholotan melts everyone in the room with his velvety rendition of “Bruca Maniguá”; Belcon joins those three for the sultry “Dos Gardenias”; and Semé pulls our heartstrings in a moving duet with Belcon, “Silencio.” These rich performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Anyone familiar with the Buena Vista Social Club’s actual origins might be surprised that many people associated with group are not mentioned here, most notably American guitarist Ry Cooder, who was a driving force behind the band’s creation and record deal. But again, Buena Vista Social Club has less to do with history than it has to do with celebrating great Cuban artists whom history seemed poised to forget. Thanks to this show, that seems more unlikely than ever.

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