HAVANA – Through dictatorship, the mob era, revolution and vast changes in Cuban society, one of the few institutions that have endured is the Tropicana cabaret.
Launched in 1939 on the outskirts of Havana, it is still serving up the time-honored mix of flash and feathers, song and statuesque dancers under the stars that it did when Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda, and Josephine Baker headlined here.
There have been a few nods to the current era – LED rope lights have replaced some of the neon and the sound and lighting systems have been upgraded, but the features that earned it a reputation as “a paradise under the stars” remain.
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There are still the parabolic-shaped entrances to the outdoor show arena, curving staircases with chasing lights where dancers descend from tree-level to the stage, catwalks set in lush vegetation where young women with towering headdresses gyrate to the relentless beat, and the royal palm, mango, ceiba and other trees that loom above the stage.
“It’s like five Las Vegas shows in one – old Las Vegas shows,” exclaimed one visitor from the Fathom cruise ship Adonia that arrived in Havana this week, making history as the first cruise ship to come directly from Miami to Cuba in more than 50 years. The Fathom brand is owned by Doral-based Carnival Corp.
The show, choreographed by Tomás Morales, highlights the rhythms of Cuba – rumba, mambo, danzonete, Latin jazz, cha-cha-cha and pulsating drums – and features singers, acrobats and some 200 dancers.
The singers and dancers still dazzle with what seems like miles of ruffles on their sparkly costumes, impossibly tall headdresses including lit chandeliers balanced on their heads for one number, and skimpy costumes revealing the rich diversity of the Cuban population.
About mid-way through the show, there’s a scene where lithe male dancers bear the lash of a slave master and the dance has a more contemporary feel.
Throughout the show there’s an endless parade of colors: reds, tangerine, lime green and purple and headdresses exploding with the brilliant hues of tropical fruit.
But other things have changed. The mob, which once controlled casinos, hotels and entertainment venues in Havana, is long gone, and so is the casino that once pulled visitors into the Tropicana.
In the 1950s, travelers could buy an air package for an evening at the club and still be home at 4 a.m. the next day. Shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the government took over the Tropicana and it still runs it.
The Tropicana continues to pack the visitors in, and pack is the operative word. Tables are placed so close to each other that patrons can scarcely squeeze into their seats; many tables are placed sideways to the stage, requiring an awkward twist to view the show.
These days the audience includes far fewer Cubans than decades ago. Some still come for special occasions, but the Tropicana is pricey and foreign visitors make up most of the revelers.
Fathom’s organizers had hoped to complete the blast- to-the past feeling by offering a club package with travel via a classic American car for
$219 per person, but the company wasn’t able to complete the arrangements for the old cars in time for the Adonia’s maiden voyage to Cuba.
An excursion from the Adonia, docked in Old Havana, to the club in Marianao via air-conditioned bus cost $199. That included admission
to the show, bottled water, a glass of champagne, peanuts, a soft drink mixer and one bottle of Havana Club rum per table, typically seating five people.
Extra cocktails cost five Cuban convertible pesos (slightly more than $5); water and soft drinks were priced at three CUCs.
The drink policy caused a mini-rebellion by the Adonia group. Although the group was seated by 8:45 p.m. for a 10 p.m. show, their guide told them that the drink service didn’t begin until just before the start-time of the show and that any drinks before then cost extra.
Waiters were busy serving the crowd – except for the tables occupied by the Adonia passengers, who found themselves a dry desert in a sea of drinkers.
After the group had been seated for more than a half hour without drinks, one man began calling out to the waiters, “Oye, we’ve been here 30 minutes and no one has come to serve us. I’m thirsty.”
Eventually, pre-show drinks arrived for the Adonia group but the bottles of Havana Club añejo especial were so late arriving that some tables had barely made a dent in them before the 1 ½ -hour show ended.
That prompted the impatient drinker to start a petition that he presented to a Fathom worker, complaining “that we didn’t get anything on time.”
“This is the problem dealing with Americans,” whispered one woman in the group.
But even the rabble-rouser and his table mates conceded they were having a good time as the chandelier ladies came on stage and later two acrobats contorted themselves into impossible positions.
For the finale, the strobe lights flashed, the dancers came down from the stage and some members of the audience got up and danced with them.
“From watching this I can understand how multicultural Cubans are,” said Tavia Tiblets, of Fort Worth, Texas, a cruiser who watched the show with her husband.
By the time, the audience began filing out of the Tropicana, a slightly overcast sky had cleared and the stars were once again twinkling in the “paradise under the stars.”
The Tropicana excursion was offered as part of a people-to-people trip, and Fathom views it as a deep immersion in Cuba culture.
“Experience the music, colors, and beauty of Cuban and Caribbean folklore as told by some of the best entertainers in the world,” says the promotional material for the excursion.
Some cruisers had interpreted that as meaning they would have some of the “meaningful” exchanges with the entertainers that are supposed to be a hallmark of people-to-people travel that is allowed — although a U.S. travel ban to Cuba remains in effect for all but 12 categories of travel.
But the closest they got to the dancers was when they shimmied by their tables at the end of the show.