- Agustín Lara: Boleros & Blues
- Book by Gabriel Garcia; musically adapted by Mari Paz
- Conceived and directed by Abel Lopez
- Produced by the GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
- Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Who was Agustín Lara, known as Mexico’s musical poet? Worshipped by swooning fans as “Our Golden Skinny Man,” Lara wrote gorgeous, romantic ballads, or boleros, and lived the life of his lyrics-as a woman’s dream of a Latin lover. But was this songwriter more than his legend as a womanizer? Our curiosity is aroused as we give in to the pulsating beat from a four-piece combo on stage and watch Lara’s disfigured face flash briefly on a screen. When Lara died in 1970, there was a moment of silence throughout the entire country during his funeral.
By starting Boleros & Blues with an epitaph, GALA director Abel Lopez takes on the difficult challenge of giving us a flashback of Lara’s journey to international fame. It’s a trip of joy worth experiencing even with a few bumps along the way. Fortunately, the effortlessly magnificent Hugo Medrano, who plays Lara, is our guide.
When he tangos, Medrano is light-hoofed with the staccato-steps of a Fred Astaire. Ever the chameleon actor, Medrano is dark-haired and superb as a starry-eyed, younger Agustín Lara, leaning over an ornately filigreed balcony on a monumental, mustard-colored set, dripping with drop chain-lamps, floor shadows of leaf-patterns, and old-world elegance. (Set design by Mariana Fernandez.) It’s 1928 and Lara fears the time is ripe for another Mexican Revolution like the one that raged in every village from 1910 to 1920. He tells us he wants to change things, without “the killings,” by becoming a poet for his country, to make people feel united for “a new day to dawn.”
Boleros & Blues is a revue-a surrealistic montage-not an integrated drama where songs evolve organically out of a logical story line. Versatile actors Carlos Castillo and Monalisa Arias, who play multi-roles narrate the transitions into Lara’s songs, delivered by the four solo performers, Nelson Pino, Dayan Aldana, Monalisa Arias, and the superlative Anamer Castrello. Writer Gabriel Garcia, better known to GALA audiences as a director of darker-themed plays, is also an Emmy award winning film maker.
This revue unreels like a recital or a documentary explaining Lara’s “new music,” his passion for the Afro-Cuban beat that blended the tango, foxtrot and waltz from a “confluence of races and culture” in Veracruz, his adopted birthplace.
From a close compatriot, Renato Leduc (Carlos Castillo), we learn more about Lara’s wilder, bohemian side. Officially born in Mexico City, Agustín, a “slow learner” at school, was sent to military school for discipline, but Agustin, who moved to a different drummer, left. Even his music professor (Monalisa Arias) found Lara impossible to teach harmony. Instead, Lara wrote songs “heard in his head” for pleasure, for nightclubs, bordellos and ultimately for national radio and the golden era of Mexican film in the mid-‘30s to late-‘40s. Earning the name “the Universal Romantic,” Lara searched even higher for that impossible, unattainable love, for “a women made of honey and rosebuds.” Just as Lara’s face was scarred by a woman who slashed his face with a broken beer bottle, the Mexican people, scarred by revolutionary violence, longed for relief, Leduc tells us. And that’s the way Lara’s boleros, that originated in Cuba, some melancholy ballads, full of passion, about an exploited young girl, saddened by the blues, united a divided country with romance.
Mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello reincarnates Lara’s ideal woman. As the anonymous “Singer (Cantante)”, Castrello, dressed to the max by costume designer Marcella Villanueva, in long white gloves and honey-colored satin, bowls us over when she unleashes her lush, smoky power or simply stands on stage and snaps her fingers. Her presence is felt and lingers long after with memorable songs, like “Veracruz,” sung as a national anthem in the region, and “Azul” (Blue), sung with such deep intimacy and joy it seems a mockery of the “blues.”
Baritone Nelson Pino is at his best when paired with Castrello in “Solamente una vez,” (Only Once In My Life), which elicited “ohs” and “ahs” of appreciation before and after in the audience. But although Pino’s intonation was slippery in his first number on opening night, he came into his own as his resonant and determined voice sailed into the haunting “Granada“-a show stopper. Popularized by Frank Sinatra, but exalted by opera virtuoso Placido Domingo, “Granada” translators often corrupt that last line that should pulse like a blood transfusion from the sun and tell about a city personified by bullfights and a “rebellious Gypsy in my dreaming, all covered with flowers,…..”
Another stunning moment occurs when Lara (Medrano) confronts the martyred genius Spanish poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (Carlos Castillo), whose poetry still lives in spite of the Spanish Civil War. Although they never actually met in real life, two poetic icons-one from Veracruz, the other from Andalucia-converse as if in a dream; then exit in different directions. The vignette speaks volumes about the power of language and poetry.
Unfortunately the problem with this show for English speakers is that the overhead translations of the narration stop when the songs start. If only the sur-titles continued into the songs so English speakers would feel less isolated and disconnected. Listing the performed songs in the program helps but the show would be helped immeasurably with printed English translation.
Also, although kudos should go to the jazz combo, Orlando Cotto, percussion; Edward “Yimmy” Fernandez, bass; Benjamin C. Sands, sax, and musical arranger and pianist, Mari Paz, the sound design needs balancing. At moments the combo overpowered the singers. That’s another flaw easily corrected.
Overall, however, GALA and Abel Lopez should be showered with roses for sharing Agustín Lara, whose over 500 songs turned weapons of war to flowers for the heart and brought a nation together for peaceful instead of violent revolution.
- Running Time: 1:45 with one 15 minute intermission. English sur-titles provided for the spoken dialogue and narration.
- When: Thursdays – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to June 29, 2008.
- Where: GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square, 3333 14th Street N.W., at Park Road (Columbia Heights Metro, Green Line) Garage parking available directly behind the theater in the Giant lot for a flat fee of $4. Parking lot entrance is located on Park Road.
- Tickets: $30 general admission, Thursdays and Sundays; $34 Fridays and Saturdays. Student tickets, seniors (65+) and military are $20 Thursday/Sundays, and $26 Fridays/Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more, and for student groups
- Info and Reservations: 202-234-7174, (800) 494-TIXS or visit the website.