After a resounding success in March with WAM2, In Series Artistic Director Carla Hubner takes another daring leap by bringing together the unexpected. Now back on home turf in the more intimate Source theatre space, In Series stages Saudade: Songs of Longing & Celebration, a show for poetry lovers. It is an intimate jazz-Brazz revue that unites performed spoken poetry, a cabaret-style vocalist with an exciting trio of consummate musicians.
“Saudade” (saw-dah-gee) in Brazilian Portuguese means love suffering, a deep passion for a past that may never return. Instead of Don Quixote’s impossible dream, we’re on a journey with another ultra-romantic, anti-hero wanderer, who yearns to recapture the impossible experience.
Sadly, this musical revue is a beautiful disappointment. Parts of the performance are stirring—even exalting. All this potentially explosive, rich material is really worth the mix. But overall the show fizzles for lack of stronger direction and focus.
Here’s the good part first. Actress Jenifer Belle Deal, who directs and assumes the role of the wanderer—the homeless soul, a role that Johnny Cash has immortalized in folksong, sets the current flowing with an impassioned delivery of spoken poetry. She walks on stage and speaks a poem from a multi-prize-winning American poet who lived in Brazil for eighteen years. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” asks: “Think of the long trip home./Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/ Where should we be today?”
The opening questions are left adrift yet we are intrigued, even mystified. It’s as if we are invited into an intimate, drawing room recital in an earlier Latin American decade. The program translates just enough of the lyrics so we don’t have to be fully bilingual to understand the songs in Spanish, some in Portuguese, two in English.
With a wistful smile, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Esquivel, in a fringed shawl of golden satin, conveys the longing for completeness within the wanderer’s search for home, in a languid, laid-back, reflective style. She sings about saudade in her opening number “Saudade-Guarania,” by Brazilian/Paraguayan Mario Palmeiro. “When you lose a great love, its melancholic memory is saudade!” It may hurt to remember, but that’s living life to the fullest. Overall, however, Esquivel needs more spark to bring the program to a flaming climax.
It takes the trio of musicians to enflame the show. Here’s the exalting part jazz afficianados will dig. Three traditionally back row instrumentalists take turns in the center stage spotlight to become more than back up. Dani Cortaza is the mesmerizing guitarist; with Ephriam Wolfolk, the agile-fingered upright bass player; and Bruno Lucini, versatile percussionist, who are inspiration personified. Solo spots for each provide more answers in this wandering search for consolation against saudade, that gut-wrenching loss that can best be articulated through soul music.
The road is long and filled with risk but there’s one great high point. Cortaza’s baritone guitar talks to us with warm tones and expressive phrasing in “Alfonsina And The Sea, (Alfonsina y el mar), by Argentine Ariel Ramirez. The musical composition immortalizes Alfonsina Storni, the celebrated poetess who escaped pain by committing suicide. Spoken poetry follows to bring a chill to the experience. In a voice of hushed reverence, actress Deal recites: “I’m going to sleep,” a powerful poem that depicts Storni’s drowning in the sea. Here’s one line that sneaks up and stings with irony: “…What new poems were you trying to find?/An ancient voice took you, asleep, dressed in ocean robes.” This part of the program really works well.
But this disjointed show is in search of a stronger, more objective director. Esquivel, who is at her best when harmonizing with Dani Cortaza’s weeping guitar, needs to let out all the stops with more projection to convince us her soul is in pain when she gently warbles the tango by Argentine Eladia Blazquez, “The Heart Looks South” (Corazon Al Sur) about the homesick exile’s bittersweet yearning for completeness. We need the intensity of a soul singer, like Anamer Castrello (memerable in the GALA’s El Bola—Cuba’s King of Song) to put across songs like Cinnamon Flower (La flor de la canela) by Peruvian Chabuca Granda, and the bolero In My Old San Juan (En mi viejo San Juan) by Puerto Rican Noel Estrada.
The trio keeps Saudade upbeat. The opener for Act II, “A Different Beat” (Batida diferente), for example, is an instrumental improvisation on the samba by Brasilian Duval Ferreira, that transcends the sense of existential despair. In a playful, improvised moment, percussionist, Lucini, makes eye contact with Esquivel, and mocks himself with exaggerated gesture on cajone drum, congas, brush on cymbal and snare. And there’s a lively, interactive moment in “Love Until the End,” (Amor ate o fim), a bossa-nova by Gilberto Gil from Brazil, when Esquivel, who has changed to a bright red shawl, uses a shaker to bring Lucini to his feet to answer her call with a response from a tambourine.
Oddly, the two selections in English, the most accessible and familiar, don’t swing as they should. In “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” by George Gershwin and “Like Someone in Love,” by Van Heusen & Burke, Esquivel really needs to project the passion and emotional dynamics simmering beneath her surface to hit the highs of celebration.
Universal themes stir us intellectually but it takes letting go to tap the depths and reach the heights.
Thanks to actress Deal’s nuanced emoting, Saudade awakens us to spring with an effective climactic moment in “Water,” by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, (translated by Ursula LeGuin) that captures a sense of abandonment and longing for youth in old age. Deal articulates the poem compellingly with carefully chosen hand gestures; and she speaks it as if personally addressing every individual in the audience. But those moments of engagement between the performers and audience are too few and far apart to waltz us enthusiastically into the celebration of Ricardo Soffia Argonado’s “River, River,” (Rio,Rio), the sing-a-long finale.
At the last performance of Saudade, on April 10 th, the 2010 Three Winners and participants in the First Annual Finding Gabriela D.C. Youth Poetry Contest will be introduced. Don’t miss them. The poems printed in the program are impressive.
Saudade: Songs of Longing & Celebration (Nostalgia y Cancion) plays thru April 10, 2011 at Source, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
A Special Anniversary Program of songs, poetry and Latin Jazz
Directed by Jenifer Beal
Produced by The In Series
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: about 1 hour, 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.