The heart-shattering agony of families torn apart is a pain too many people around the world know firsthand. The Cuban people have known it and lived it since New Year’s Day 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power and set off a diaspora that brought many of them to a Miami they would help transform.
That wrenching loss, along with the exultant joy embedded in Cuban music and dance, is at the heart of “Havana Music Hall,” a musical now getting its world premiere at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre.
With music, lyrics and story by Richard Kagan and a book by Carmen Peláez, the show is an ode to the talent and resilience of Cuban musicians as well as a condemnation of the political system that shut down the free expression of their art. Although some Actors’ Playhouse regulars and South Florida actors are involved with the production, the visually sumptuous “Havana Music Hall” is the Broadway-aspiring work of an outside creative team, a show embellished via enhancement money.
Kagan and Peláez tell the story of Rolando and Ramona Calderón (Alexander Pimental and Linedy Genao), married performers who are running the lively Havana Music Hall in at the end of 1958. Ramona’s brother Alberto (Bruno Faria) commands the bandstand alongside them, and backed by a tight band and killer dancers, the entertainers have come to the attention of Tropicana owner Martin Fox. Fox catches their act and offers them a breakthrough gig at his famous club on New Year’s Eve.
They do perform, but after their first set, Fox learns that ruler Fulgencio Batista is going to flee the country as Castro’s forces take over. He abruptly shuts down the Tropicana, and at home, Rolando, Ramona, Alberto and Alberto’s wife Maria (Elaine Flores) face the same agonizing decision that would alter so many lives: stay or go? Ramona is imprisoned on false charges, and Rolando sends their baby daughter Elena with Alberto and Maria to Miami for safety, only to be thrown in prison himself.
The second act flashes forward 60 years to the present day. The weary Ramona (Isbelia Duran) and Rolando (Oscar Cheda) still live in the now-rundown Havana Music Hall, which they’re forced to run as a revolution-sanctioned music school. Completely cut off from communication with Alberto, Maria and Elena – their calls and letters apparently never get through – the lonely couple has informally adopted an orphaned young man named Yariel (Jorge Barranco), who uses his blend of hip-hop and song to hustle waves of American tourists. But once Mari (Lauren Horgan), a writer for Billboard, shows up, everything changes.
Directed and choreographed by Maria Torres, “Havana Music Hall” is spirited then somber by turns. It stakes out distinctive territory by remaining in Havana and focusing on the same couple before, during and long after the revolution. The losses and pain suffered by the Calderóns are abundantly clear. So is the emotional release they get from making music. Judging from the responses during the opening night performance, these elements speak personally and deeply to the Cuban-Americans in the audience whose families lived their own versions of Rolando and Ramona’s story.
The world premiere production is also spectacularly packaged. The two-story set by Paul Tate dePoo III looks like the interior of a once-beautiful, then-ruined space in Cuba’s capital city. Just as vital to the show’s look are the impressively intricate projections by Eye Q Productions. One example of their magic: The projections transform the modest Havana Music Hall into the fabled Tropicana, and as several showgirls clad in orange feathers and sequins dance onstage, the images of others dance on the walls of the set and the theater itself.
Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes evoke the late ‘50s, both everyday outfits and the elegant/glamorous looks for the characters as they perform, and she also supplies a variety of contemporary looks for the island residents and tourists in 2018. Cory Pattak’s lighting design summons everything from the warmth of a tropical sun to the shadowy menace of ruthless revolutionaries. Sound designer Lucas “Rico” Corrubia makes both intimate moments and the blazing sound of the nine-piece orchestra perfectly clear.
Kagan’s music, with orchestrations by music supervisor Larry Blank and dance music arrangements/orchestrations by Oscar Hernández, is stronger than his work as a lyricist. His melodies are infectious, and the opening song “Esta Noche” builds anticipation that something special is about to happen. “Baila Maria” showcases the talents of the young Rolando, Ramona and Alberto, and “Mambo Cha Cha Rhumba” gives Torres and the show’s dazzling dancers a license to thrill. Which they do.
The composer also delivers several moving ballads, including “All Alone and Lonely” for Mari, “Too Old To Dream” for the older Rolando and “I Have My Voice” for the older Ramona, as well as the emotional anthem “This Is the Place of My Birth” and the playful double entendre number “My Maracas” for the big-voiced singer-dancer Mercedes (Anissa Gathers).
The cast of actor-singer-dancers delivers impassioned performances. The confident Pimentel and luminous Genao have terrific voices and are sympathetic protagonists. Faria, a South Florida-based actor, is charisma personified as Alberto. Phillip Andrew Santiago conveys the initial goofiness and subsequent danger in a young waiter named Julio, and as the older Julio, Rodrigo de la Rosa embodies the powerful bureaucrat who stayed true to the revolution while remaining capable of kindness to old friends.
Barranco is an amusing livewire as Yariel, Horgan a moving young woman as the questing Mari. Cheda and Duran sing their ballads beautifully, and both convey the crushing realities of living for six decades under a soul-crushing dictatorship. It should be noted, however, that if you do the math, the present-day characters would be around 80 or so, and neither actor comes anywhere close to suggesting that stage of life.
Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, “Havana Music Hall” tells its story briskly. But as with most new shows, particularly given the complex collaborative process involved in creating a musical, it could use more work. Revisiting some of the lyrics would help, and for those in the audience who aren’t bilingual – not such an issue in South Florida, but likely more problematic for audiences in other places – providing translations (in the program or as supertitles) for the Spanish lyrics wouldn’t hurt.
Tonally, some of the characters are painted in broad strokes (think the menacing revolutionaries, a goofy tour leader and her charges, and so on). Figuring out how to make them ring as true as the key characters is another piece of the puzzle.
In interviews about the show, the creators of “Havana Music Hall” have made much of the universality of its story, and if theatergoers stop to think about what this show has in common with a musical like “Fiddler on the Roof,” they have a point.
But truth be told, though much of “Havana Music Hall” in its world premiere form is moving, entertaining and engaging, it is quite specific to the experiences of Cuban and Cuban-American families whose stories aren’t much different than the one told in this show. “Havana Music Hall” has crossover dreams, but for now, it is speaking to a very particular audience.
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If you go
What: “Havana Music Hall” by Richard Kagan and Carmen Pelaez.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
Cost: $30 to $75.
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.