Adelaide Mestre has been a woman divided for much of her life.
Her heritage on her mother’s side is the world of WASPs, Park Avenue and the Social Register. Department store magnate Marshall Field III and Metropolitan Opera co-founder Cornelius Bliss were her great-grandfathers.
Distinguished in its own right, her father’s family was listed in the “gold book” of Cuban society. Her grandfather, Abel Mestre, and his brothers owned CMQ, the country’s leading radio and television network, until Fidel Castro drove the family into exile. Yet until she took a trip to Cuba in 2010 in search of memories and her late father’s Steinway piano, Mestre’s connection to that part of her identity was far more ephemeral.
Reconciling the many facets of her life is at the heart of Top Drawer, the play with music Mestre will perform Saturday and Sunday at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s OnStage Black Box Theatre.
Mestre, who lives in New York, is the first to tell you, in Top Drawer and in conversation, that she has had a pattern of not following her passions to fruition. She dropped out of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, had an off-again on-again career as an actress (including a small role in the Woody Allen movie Husbands and Wives) and never quite became the cabaret singer she intended to be. But Top Drawer, which she’s working to turn into a memoir and maybe a movie, is different.
“I hadn’t put the pieces of my life together. I knew them all separately ... but this was like looking back and seeing the patterns in my life,” she says. “I never would have imagined the show would bring such healing. Writing it, working through it, facing it all — it became a tribute to my dad, a way to keep him alive. I created a piece of art that has transmuted my sense of loss.”
Mestre’s father, Luis Enrique Mestre, dreamed of becoming a concert pianist but went to Harvard Business School to please his parents. He pursued performing until a teacher told him he’d never be one of the great pianists, then switched careers to become an art dealer. He was also a gay man whose “best friend” was his lover, a truth that came out (as Mestre himself did) when Adelaide was a child.
His relationship with Mestre’s mother, Barbara Bliss Mestre, began through a shared love of music — her quashed dream was to become an opera singer — while Barbara was married to a State Department officer. When Mestre’s parents wed, Luis wept, answering Barbara’s question about why by saying, “Because I never thought I’d have this.”
In collaborating on Top Drawer with director-actor Lauren “Coco” Cohn (Rosie in the current Broadway production of Mamma Mia!) and musical director Doug Oberhamer, Mestre found that elusive thing called closure.
“It was amazing to tell my dad’s story. I grew up with the shame of having a gay dad in the ’70s, when it wasn’t OK. And then he committed suicide, which was another kind of shame,” she says.
“ Top Drawer aired it all out. … People respond to different things — the story of a gay dad, the suicide, my parents’ love story. I have a feeling of wholeness. This does feel like it completes something in my family.”
Mestre had left performing and was studying to become a Gestalt therapist when Top Drawer drew her back to family and the arts. Oberhamer, who won’t be playing the Miami shows because of a New York conflict, describes Mestre as a performer with “a lot of trepidation. She’s the kind of person who thinks, ‘Well, who wants to hear this story?’ ”
Lots of people, as it turns out.
Top Drawer moves back and forth in time as its nearly cinematic score leads Mestre in and out of song — everything from the bolero Sin Ti to the haunting In a Very Unusual Way from Nine, a show she saw with her mother just a few months after her father’s death.
Oberhamer believes she communicates with audiences in a way that transcends traditional musical theater.
“I don’t even think of her as singing in this,” he says. “It’s all such pure emoting.”
Cohn, who has been Mestre’s pal since they met at NYU, says, “Her voice has a lot of ache in it. You can’t help but enjoy and respect someone who is willing to be that raw.”
Top Drawer hits different audiences in different ways. Cohn says a non-Cuban New York crowd “relates to the stuff about the Upper East Side. Cubans see it and weep. But it has this universality.”
What Top Drawer has done for Mestre, besides giving her a deeply personal piece that its creators hope will have an Off-Broadway run, is to restore a lost part of her life.
She would always say “I’m half Cuban” because it felt more exciting than the WASP side that dominated most of her growing up, and visited her father’s side of the family in Miami as a kid. But it wasn’t until she went to Cuba that she felt, “Oh. There are people like me.”
Mestre’s journey of change continues in unexpected ways. She recently wed businessman Eric Schwartz, and in January, past 40, she’ll welcome her first child — a baby girl Mestre plans to name Lucia, in honor of her father.
“I hadn’t had this idea of motherhood,” Mestre says. “But the timing of the show, the conquering of my demons — it all feels synchronistic.”