Broadway star Raúl Esparza, 39, grew up surrounded by the Cuban culture of Miami. The only child of exile parents, the actor graduated from Belén Jesuit Preparatory School (where he won a Silver Knight in Drama in 1988) and New York University and, since 2004, has earned Tony Award nominations in every male acting category: best featured actor in a musical (Taboo), best actor in a musical (Company in 2007), best featured actor in a play (The Homecoming in 2008) and best actor in a play (Speed-the-Plow in 2009).
Since making his professional acting debut at 18 in Mixed Blessings at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Esparza has done his acting elsewhere -- until now. Babalu, a tribute concert put together by Lucie Arnaz at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y last January, is coming to the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts July 8-11. The daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (aka Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on TV's I Love Lucy) celebrates the music of her late father in a narrated song-and-dance program. Esparza, Arnaz and Valarie Pettiford are featured as vocalists, a pair of Latin dancers performs, and the music gets made by the New Desi Arnaz Orchestra with Desi Arnaz Jr. on percussion.
On Wednesday, Esparza chatted by phone from New York about the show that will soon bring him home.
Why did you want to perform in Babalu?
"Because of the music, the history and the family connections, I got to touch base with myself. Desi's greatest thing was popularizing Latin and Cuban music in the United States. He became a Hollywood star by being very Cuban. He put the lie to theidea that everyone has to be a certain way to fit in."
What do you do in the show?
"I happen to be the guy who speaks Spanish, so most of what I sing is in Spanish."
Why did Lucie Arnaz want to bring the show here?
"When Miami became an option, we all jumped on it. If you want to perform Cuban music, Miami is the place. We have the opportunity to do it for our greatest and toughest audience."
What does it mean to you to be performing again in your hometown?
"This is music that I learned to sing sitting on my grandmother's knee, music that my mom played on Saturdays at home. It's so fundamentally something that shaped me; it contains a whole history of Cuban longing. Who I am is just a Cuban kid from Kendall. I'm still just amazed that I've been able to perform Sondheim, get Tony nominations, be on TV and do movies. But it really leads back to who I am. There is nothing more powerful than connecting with home and family."
-- CHRISTINE DOLEN
Tickets, $35-$70, go on sale May 21 at arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.