Monday, October 01, 2007

Celia the Musical

The recent track record of Broadway jukebox musicals has been mixed, from the highly successful Jersey Boys to the short-lived Ring of Fire. Although New World Stages technically qualifies as Off-Broadway, it is very Broadway-like in the commercial nature of its productions. Their new entry into jukebox musical market, Celia: the Life and Music of Celia Cruz, which opened the 26th, succeeds largely due to its honesty and its faithfulness to her music.

Singing the songs of Cruz is Xiomara Laugart, and she is a natural fit for the role. Clearly, she can identify with the dramatic events of Cruz’s life, having, as the NY Daily News reports: “defected to the U.S. almost a decade ago without a penny in her pocket or a command of the English language, yet managed to resume her career and build a new life.” Laugart has a strong voice and demonstrates an affinity for the repertoire, including most of the favorite hits from Cruz’s career, including: “Quimbara,” “Guantanamera,” and “Yo Viviré (I Will Survive)”. She really is a powerful vocalist who wins over the audience immediately.

Laugart is supported by a fantastic Latin combo, seated on stage Chicago-style, up from the pit. They even get a wardrobe change during intermission, from tuxedos appropriate to the pre-revolutionary clubs of Havana, to seventies style flora prints.

Led by Isidro Infante, a veteran of bands led by Cruz, Tito Puente, and Machito, the Celia combo sounds like a much larger group than their seven pieces. As the orchestrator and musical director, he gets the music right. Percussionists Luisito and Robert Quintero, who have recorded with the Caribbean Jazz Project, keep a strong rhythmic pulse going. At one point, Luisito Quintero channels Tito Puente, showing off the drumstick-around-the-head orison. Unfortunately, Nelson Gonzalez’s tres is largely overwhelmed in the mix, as he has a very tasteful, but all too brief solo that left one wanting to hear more.

The drama is largely supplied by Modesto Lacén as Cruz’s widower husband Pedro Knight, telling his nurse (recording artist Pedro Capó) about life with his beloved Celia. It is basically a narrative framing device to keep the musical numbers in context, but Lacén’s Knight is still touching at times. Capó has some impressive numbers, and a few effective dramatic moments with Lacén, as well. Also, Wilson Mendieta’s depiction of Johnny Pacheco and his exuberant conducting style should amuse salsa fans.

To its credit, Celia the musical deals with the realities of the Castro regime and Cruz’s resulting exile directly and forthrightly. The book by Carmen Rivera & Candido Tirado makes it clear there would be no artistic freedom in Cuba after 1959. We see the corruption and arbitrary abuses of power from party bureaucrats and the suffering inflicted on musicians like Cruz and Knight. In one of the musical’s heaviest dramatic episodes, Celia portrays the pain Cruz felt when she was unable to attend her mother’s funeral due to Castro’s banishment decree.

Celia is well staged, nicely capturing the excitement of major events like the Fania All-Stars concert at Yankee Stadium. It deftly handles the trials of Cruz’s life, without dampening the joy of the music. There are only two English language performances each week—Saturdays at 5:00 and Sundays at 7:00. I attended the Saturday show, and if it representative of other shows, one can expect to feel a real collective spirit in an audience eager to express its love for Cruz (New World Stages also sells Sangria in the theater, which does not hurt the good vibe). Celia is an entertaining show that moves along at a good clip and features a great musical performance by Laugart in the title role. Her fans won’t be disappointed, and the music of Celia Cruz should win over anyone with open ears. (Read Val's reaction and his personal reflections on Celia Cruz here.)