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Music of the Corazon: “Buena Vista Social Club” reviewed

The sound of music is alive and well at Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theatre, where Buena Vista Social Club puts the Afro-Cuban stylings of the middle of the last century in the spotlight.

Those familiar with this sound are probably well-acquainted with the 1997 album “Buena Vista Social Club,” which gathered a group of elderly musicians to recreate the atmosphere and the traditional musical styles of a racially inclusive Havana nightspot before the Cuban Revolution. 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.  Not only was it a hit, becoming one of the best-selling Latin albums of all time, it was the subject of an Oscar-nominated 1999 documentary from Wim Wenders.

Saheem Ali’s stage version, with a book by Marco Ramirez, stretches out this jam session into a two-act musical, with some fictional characters thrown in. “Some of what follows is true,” says bandleader Juan de Marcos (Luis Vega), who was instrumental in assembling the album’s participants. “Some of it only feels true.” Ramirez’s book begins almost in reverse, in 1996, when Juan, a young, ambitious, Havana-based record producer, secures a deal with British producers to make an album of vintage Cuban pop songs. He approaches famed singer Omara (Natalie Venetia Belcon), who relents despite an initially haughty display.

There’s a reason for her flintiness, and Ramirez then transports us back to 1956 Havana, when Omara and her sister Haydee are part of a double act. Haydee (Danaya Esperanza) wants them to get them a contract with Capitol Records, which will open the door to a career in the safer United States. Omara, however, cleaves to the Buena Vista Social Club, and to Ibrahim (Mel Semé), a Black busboy. These are turbulent times, of course, and many citizens are fleeing Cuba – and Haydee and Omara’s family wants them to do the same.

Having a narrative to thread through an evening of song and dance is one thing. Had Ramirez concocted a light plot to guide us from one song to another, Buena Vista Social Club would be nothing but pure fun. Instead, though, it becomes weighed down with heavy political sentiment and undercooked familial and romantic intrigue. The relationship between Ibrahim and Omara doesn’t go anywhere, and the racial politics behind the Buena Vista feels confused (especially since it is presented as based on class, and the real Buena Vista Social Club was a Black hub). The key moment is Buena Vista comes when Omara must decide whether or not to join her sister in a performance at the club, but things get opaque for both the characters and the audience as Haydee announces that their father, a relatively unknown force throughout the show, has been abducted by enigmatic thugs for an unknown reason. Yelling at Omara for not keeping up with the country’s unstable politics, one realizes how little the show itself has elucidated the conflict.

But there are real riches afoot in the show: Arnulfo Maldonado’s two-level period-appropriate set and Dede Ayite’s costumes suggest period and levels of privilege. And the show bursts to life when we focus on the music itself: Since the music emerges as the true star, it’s worth paying tribute to the musicians providing Buena Vista’s sensational score, including singer-guitarist Compay Segundo (Julio Monge), the pianist Rubén González (Jainardo Batista Sterling), the tres player Eliades Ochoas (Renesito Avich, who has a fantastic second act solo), all in addition to Semé.  Numbers like “Candela,” “Chan Chan,” and “Que Bueno Baila Usted” spotlight the band’s terrific brass section, brilliantly complimented by Jonathan Deans’s sound design and Tyler Micoleau’s pyrotechnic lighting. And Kenya Brown and Esperanza shine during “El Cumbanchero”; Belcon and Semé have a great duet in “Silencio.” Olly Sholotan delivers a silky rendition of “Bruca Maniguá”; Belcon joins those three for the sultry “Dos Gardenias.” All of them owe a debt to the sharp work from creative consultant David Yazbek, music supervisor Dean Sharenow, and musical director, arranger and orchestrator Marco Paguia. And sound designer Jonathan Deans makes the music feel clarion in the Linda Gross space.

Call it a work-in-progress (and I do hope there is more life for Buena Vista). Although it might work better as concert than narrative musical, Ali’s show nonetheless presents the flavor of the soul.

Buena Vista Social Club
Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater