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Buena Vista Social Club

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 13, 2023

The Cast
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Go for the music. Stay for the music. And the dancing. And the acting. And the story. And the direction. And the set design. And all the rest of the et ceteras thrown into the mix. Buena Vista Social Club at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater is a fantástico two hours of a heartwarming and joyful celebration of love. If this doesn't move to Broadway, then shame on Broadway.

The musical phenomenon that is the actual Buena Vista Social Club is a gift that keeps on giving. Named for a popular Havana venue dating to the 1940s, the group of mostly veteran Cuban and Cuban-American musicians was formed in 1996 and recorded an album that became an immediate global hit which, in turn, led to a world tour and a pair of well-received documentary films, the most recent one released in 2017.

And now they're back in the Atlantic Theater Company production that is an embarrassment of riches, combining more than a dozen outstanding songs from the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire with a moving story (book by Marco Ramirez) about loss, regret, and redemption. It all works. And even if you don't understand a word of Spanish or the differences among son, bolero, and danzón musical styles, you will be easily assimilated into the world of the gifted performers onstage. (All of the songs are in Spanish, while the dialog is mostly in English).

It's almost a crime to single out any of the musicians, but you are missing something extraordinary if you do not get to see and hear Renesito Avich on the Tres guitar (looks like a guitar, sounds like a mandolin). Dang, he's good! As are all the rest, generally performing front and center across Arnulfo Maldonado's set that perfectly captures the look and feel of a long-established Havana dance club (the show, developed and directed to perfection by Saheem Ali, alternates with ease between the years 1956 and 1996).

And speaking of "dance club," Buena Vista Social Club is doubly blessed with an amazing display of dancing, brilliantly choreographed by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, from whom talent oozes out of every pore. The ensemble of dancers, so appealingly costumed, along with the rest of the cast, by Dede Ayite, is at least as thrilling to watch as the musicians are to listen to.

But even more than the wonderful music and choreography, there is a well-integrated story about Omara, a character based on Omara Portuondo, the renowned Cuban singer and 2024 Grammy nominee who is still going strong in her 90s. In this production, in the year 1996 at that first get-together for the Buena Vista Social Club recording, Omara (regally and emotionally portrayed by Natalie Venetia Belcon) has been invited, or coerced, really, by an old heartthrob, the still flirtatious Compay (a delightful Julio Monge) to sing with the group.

Omara is circumspect at first, not certain she wants to be part of the project. Of the rest of the story, as we are told by the record's producer Juan De Marcos (Luis Vega), "some of what follows is true. Some of it only feels true. But of one thing, we have no doubt. This story begins with her."

The story does, indeed, begin with her, as we are swept back in time through her memories to the early days of her career. Omara (played as a young woman by a vivacious Kenya Browne) and her savvy and practical sister Haydee (Danaya Esperanza) are performing as an up-and-coming duo, singing for tourists at the ritzy Tropicana Night Club. Haydee sees a future for them as recording artists, but Omara is tired of smiling her way through "El Cumbanchero" for the millionth time and longs to be with the down-to-earth crowd at the Buena Vista. A falling-out causes a rift between the sisters, something Omara will grow to regret. Later comes another regret as she is put in a position of having to place her own career opportunity over loyalty when her friend Ibrahim (played as a young man by Olly Sholotan, a real charmer and a terrific singer) is prevented from joining her in a record deal owing to a racist rejection of his dark skin color.

All of these memories come flooding back as the older Omara walks away from the recording studio in order to wrestle with the outpouring of emotions. As Compay warns, "sometimes these old songs kick up old feelings." These regrets tear at Omara in ways that are never overly dramatized but come off as natural to her character and to the overall performance, as does a significant moment of quiet redemption.

Buena Vista Social Club is a magical production in every way, with all of its elements lovingly stitched into one seamless design. The music and dancing are truly glorious, while Marco Ramirez's book finds the heart and the soul of the production with a story that absolutely "feels true," so that everything fits together like a perfect mosaic. ¡Larga vida la Buena Vista Social Club!

Buena Vista Social Club
Through January 21, 2024
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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