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“Buena Vista Social Club” reviewed

Buena Vista Social Club‘s greatest asset is also its weakest link, at least when it comes to storytelling. Marco Ramirez’s book, which draws on the lives of musicians involved in making the album, has an ambitious structure, unfolding in two separate time frames, that can’t possibly be fleshed out in a show that packs fifteen musical numbers — all of them relevant to the plot only in terms of setting a tone — in just over two hours of running time. Characters come and go, announcing key plot points without making much of an impression. Meanwhile, the band members, few of whom have any lines, constantly steal focus with their virtuosic performances. It’s a musical about music, with the story lost in the background.

The action begins in 1996, when Juan De Marcos, a young, ambitious, Havana-based record producer, secures a deal with British backers to make an album of vintage Cuban pop songs. He approaches Omara, a beloved singer and feared diva, using every ounce of his persuasive skills to land her participation. As played by Natalie Venetia Belcon in a series of eye-searingly colorful muumuus, Omara has a formidable my-way-or-the-highway manner. Skeptically scanning the musicians hired by Juan — and dismissing a flutist as an unthinkable aberration — she reluctantly lets them run through a number and, against her better judgment, is captivated by their sheer prowess, unable to stop herself from joining in. By the time Hery Paz interpolates his forbidden flute solo, Omara is stunned yet thoroughly engaged. I’ve spent many nights in the Atlantic Theater, but few have rocked the house like this single number does — and there’s plenty more to come.

We discover the roots of Omara’s bitterness in flashbacks to 1956, where she is seen performing novelty numbers in Havana hotels with her sister Haydee, who is angling to get them a contract with Capitol Records, thus guaranteeing entrée to a career in the US. But Omara discovers the club of the title, where she is drawn to the music, and Ibrahim, a busboy with a golden voice. Ibrahim, however, is Black; Omara and Haydee belong to the bourgeoisie; the corrupt, hedonistic world of the Batista regime is on the way out; and many are fleeing Cuba in fear of what may come next.

Sadly, however, the characters have little meat on their bones, and key relationships, like the nascent romance between Omara and Ibrahim, never go anywhere. The show is also impossibly vague about the fraught state of Cuban society in the 1950s. Haydee’s objection to Omara hanging out at the Buena Vista is presented as class-based, although, in real life, the club was a Black organization. Omara’s decision to abandon her sister in mid-performance before an influential audience is supposed to be evidence of her devotion to authentic Cuban culture (not the processed version doled out to tourists), but her behavior comes off as headstrong and self-involved. Then Haydee announces that their father (about whom we have heard almost nothing) has been abducted by unnamed thugs for an unspecified reason. As she upbraids Omara for not keeping up with the country’s unstable politics, one thinks, now would be a good time to spell them out. (Compay, one of Omara’s colleagues, gets caught in smuggling what he thinks is rum and turns out to be guns, presumably for Castro’s insurgents but, again, no names are named.)

After Haydee leaves for Miami, Omara is approached by a record producer who promises to make her a star but without Ibrahim; it’s a devil’s bargain that she accepts and eternally regrets. This causes more confusion: The Castro regime was officially anti-racist even if not necessarily in practice: In the ensuing forty years, was it impossible for Omara to make music with a Black man? The show never says. (it’s worth noting that Omara’s real-life counterpart, Omara Portuondo Peláez, had a much more interesting life. The child of a scandalous, mixed-race marriage, she appeared with an all-woman orchestra, toured the US with her sister in support of Nat King Cole, and continued to appear abroad for years, singing ballads in praise of Salvador Allende and Che Guevara; sounds like the stuff of a musical to me.)

In a musical with a bespoke score, librettists can get away with sketchy writing, knowing that the songs will explore the characters’ motivations and advance the story. Here, the numbers, however entertaining, can’t do much heavy lifting. At least Ali’s staging moves fluidly between the two eras, especially in a first-act finale that brings together Omara’s younger and older selves with a dejected Haydee (Danaya Esperanza, in the evening’s best acting performance.) But Kenya Browne, as the young Omara, has little chemistry with Olly Sholotan in the massively underwritten role of Young Ibrahim. (His older counterpart, played by Mel Semé, does rather better, especially in the finale, when he gets to show off his lyrical voice.)

Arnulfo Maldonado’s gorgeously painted two-level set effectively stands in for both the Buena Vista and a nineties-era recording studio; it includes a wagon that allows the band to come downstage. The designer might have provided more positions for Tyler Micoleau to deliver sidelight, which would greatly improve the look of the dance sequences; in other respects, however, the lighting, which involves pulling individuals out of deeply saturated backgrounds, works fine. Dede Ayite’s costumes are especially good at evoking the 1950s. The show benefits from an extraordinarily effective sound design by Jonathan Deans, achieving an admirable clarity and presence without being overwhelming in a smallish Off-Broadway house. This is the first use in the New York theatre of the Holoplot system, currently in use in the U2 show at the Sphere in Las Vegas, which allows for unusual clarity, especially in highlighting the individual contribution of each instrument. For this reason, the production is a must-see for every sound designer in town.

Buena Vista Social Club has other things going for it, including choreography by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck that sends members of the company spinning like dervishes when not raising their arms in jubilation. And, based on its considerable buzz, I imagine that its sheer musical ebullience will be enough for many in the audience. But a fascinating story isn’t being told well and the songs aren’t providing any narrative support. It’s a little dispiriting to see theatres like Atlantic and the Public Theater (with the current Hell’s Kitchen), both of which have been stalwarts of new musical theatre, giving into the jukebox vogue rather than supporting the work of rising composers and lyricists, but that’s the state of play.