A projection of El Bola’s round face with infectious smile greets you from a circular screen. Then Marcelino Valdes, in elegant white and black tux, steps through the Omega-shaped portal and impersonates Cuba’s King of Song by sing-speaking the riff: “All of us black folk drink coffee, you know!” from Ay, Mama Ines, (by Eliseo Grenet) and the fireworks begin.
The stage explodes with life. Three liquid-hipped dancers mambo to an Afro-Cuban beat, coming from the Sin Miedo (Without Fear) combo, behind a gauzy scrim. We’re in the mind of Hector Torres, the namesake character for playwright Hector Quintero, played by Carlos Castillo, seated at his downstage desk. From earphones, he is listening to a recording of El Bola de Nieve, (The Snowball), known as “The Piano Man,” or “The Cuban Louis Armstrong,” who achieved international fame in the 1930s and 40s and died in 1971.
Who is this singer, whose nickname originated as a sarcastic, boyhood taunt? Ignacio “Snowball” Villa, was “an actor of songs,” who chose his repertoire with great care and also composed his own songs, Hector tells Esposa, or wife in Spanish, (Karen Morales), who detests Bola because of his raspy, sandpapery voice. Hector is planning a retrospective to prove Bola’s greatness. On the upstage screen, documentary film clips flicker showing El Bola in nightclubs at his beloved piano.
But it takes three consummate live performers (Valdes, Anamer Castrello and Enrique Divine) to capture Bola’s full range of emotive style. As in past GALA revues, theater spectacle is alive and well. Under director Hugo Medrano’s inspired hand and flair for well-paced patter, El Bola—Cuba’s King of Song is exciting, even explosive theater, a not-to-be-missed lush extravaganza at the Tivoli Theatre.
Quintaro’s plot is a frame like the one for the 2007 revue Latido Negro: Peru’s African Beat where a theater impressario prepares a performance. Now in El Bola, Hector, the playwright who is devoted to the Golden Age of Cuban Music, takes us to his audition where singers and dancers are at their best and every number stops the show. (Listen for the audience cheers, if you doubt me.)
Enter Venezuelan actor Enrique Divine, dressed in blazing hot-pink, as Marian, the endearing transsexual prima donna, who muscles in at every chance and almost steals the show. Marian, who has gone through a sex-change operation, suffers from “a terrible crisis of the heart.” Marian misses Margarito, who liked Marian better male. Now, Marian’s boyfriend has left her with loneliness and pain. So Marian auditions by singing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” (“Life is Beautiful” or “Life Through Rosy Hues”), one of El Bola’s favorites, in an embittered falsetto voice . Marian wants Hector to forget The Snowball, who died in 1971, and to write about her. (Or is it him?)
Divine, as Marian, is divinely mock-tragic, outrageous but intuitively balanced—at moments deadpan, belligerantly ribald and naughty, but always hilariously funny. Watch for that wonderful sarcasm to flash out when Marian takes sly aim at Hector’s upper crust wife for serving tea instead of coffee (referred to in the opener, Mama Ines). Every gesture is a subtle come-on, so much more so because of designer Dan Iwaniec’s sensational costuming—like that short, sequined skirt that shows off great gams and sparkles with every rumba hip-shake.
Throughout, mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello is a marvel of versatility. Is she a sophisticated lady, healer or trickster? The answers come in this opera singer’s vocal styles. First there’s her use of a melt-down, sensual voice for dreamy delivery of soulful, romantic boleros. The aromatic, jazmine imagery in “La Flor De La Canela” (“Cinnamon Flower”) by female Peruvian composer Chabuca Granda, is exquisitely beautiful. But chalk one up for evocativeness in the staging of “Vete De Me” (“Go Away from Me,”) by Hermanos Exposito. Castrello appears in black dress and sings a resonant call, like a scorch-the-earth torch singer, and the call is answered by the saxophone (Antonio Orta) from behind the gauze scrim. A breathtaking moment.
Then “Babalu”, by Margarita Lecuona, non-stop danced to tricky, ever-changing tempos, by two bare-chested, male dancers in white cullotes, opens yet another window on El Bola’s satiric side. “Babalu” can be remembered as once popularized by Cuban American, television star, Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy fame). But used here, it’s as if Castrello becomes a towering, operatic priestess. She’s Medrina, the santera, or shaman, who dressed in flowing white, waves herbs for a Yaruba cleansing ritual to save the show from financial ruin.
Marcelino Valdes, the songster who left Cuba in 1994, brings a purity and effortless detachment to Snowball’s character. But the question the Reporter (Gino Tassara) raises about El Bola’s alleged homosexuality is never fully answered. If he was gay, Hector only mentions the harsh intolerance Snowball would have faced in a post-1959 revolutionary climate. Whether singing mischievously about goats or lost love, Valdes is Mr. Cool in his signature bowtie. In songs of sadness, like “No Puedo Ser Feliz,” “I cannot be happy….” by Adolfo Guzman,Snowball sings of unconsummated love; of love gone wrong, the frustration of passion renounced.
But what universalizes his art are the echoes of love beyond disappointment in the deeply enigmatic, contradictory songs Ignacio Villa himself wrote, such as“No Dejes Que Te Olvide” (“Don’t Let Me Forget You.”). Ultimately he never lost that winning smile and sang happy sounding music in Havana for a sad history up to the time of his death in Mexico City—an amazing tribute to his talent that transcended race, homophobia and politics.
There are some uneven moments. Energy falters in the frame story near the end. The wife and Madrina “trickster” scene could either be tightened or taken out as unnecessary. But production values in general are a feast for eye and ear. The abstract light patterning and intensity of swirling bright lights on the floor and scrim click in at apt moments for magical realism, and are well-timed with overhead projections by designer Klyph Stanford. Set designer Osbel Susman-Pena has crafted a set of actually two sets—one behind the scrim where the four piece combo plays.
When Sin Miedo, the superb four-person combo led by the versatile musical director/arranger/and accomplished pianist, Didier Prossaird, cuts loose with the pulse-quickening Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, the results are awesome. Overall the show succeeds as a fusion of wild, swivel-hipped rhumbas, hypnotic mambos and cha-cha-cha’s, choreographed and danced by Jesus Gonzalez, Alvaro Palau Palomino and Ari Hernandez Myers. Goat-footed Dionysus would feel welcome.
El Bola—Cuba’s King of Song
World Premiere by Hector Quintero from Cuba
Directed by Hugo Medrano
Produced by GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
In Spanish with English surtitles for songs and text are conveniently placed at the sides of the proscenium.
El Bola – Cuba’s King of Song plays thru June 27, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.
EL BOLA – CUBA’S KING OF SONG