Delightful, daring, death defying, ultimately satisfying. In Puro Tango II, the spotlight immortalizes the women who sing soulful and poetic tango songs, as well as the dancers who dance it. It’s as if the characters seem to be saying: ‘I’m working class, at the bottom of the social ladder. I live in squalor, in slums. I’m poor financially. What else can you do to me? As long as I dance or sing to escape suffering and pain, I’m alive and can wear sensational clothes and be beautiful. You can’t kill me.’
GALA’s artistic director Hugo Medrano wrote the dialogue and created this show as a follow-up to Puro Tango, a well-received song and dance variety show in 2012.
In contrast, Puro Tango II is a magnificent, focused mosaic that takes the tango to a new level. Its mysterious allure seems limitless. Occasional feeds from an Emcee/Presenter, actor Cecilia de Feo, rope us to a theme. The focus is “….to celebrate the important role of women in tango, not only as muses of its poets and musicians but also as creators and…singers.” This is an over-the-top, phenomenal cabaret-style musical revue, played straight to the audience. Don’t expect a conventional Greek-style drama. Just don’t miss this show. It’s worth every second.
Designer Mariana Fernández, who also did the stunning, flamboyant costumes, stages fore-and-aft masts of two 19th century clipper ships, replete with rigging, at dock behind the elegant pilasters of a seaport harbor. You can sense the breeze from Río de la Plata/La Plata River. The set symbolizes the song and dance exported from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Montevideo, Uruguay, two ports memorialized in the cabaret’s Act II, lively Milonga, a tango variation, “Bien criolla y bien porteña,/From the country, from the port.” Two cities where tango is the rage, even danced in the streets.
But let’s back up. A powerhouse, smoldering team, Jeremías and Mariela (performers Jeremías Massera and Mariela Barufaldi), open the show with the light-hearted, “Milonga de mis amores/Two-step dance of my beloved,” music by Pedro Laurenz (1937). It’s an exuberant choice, as tangoed by Jeremías and Mariela who speak through their feet, the back-kicks, stalking walks, dips and deep knee, cavernous lunges and leg-hooks that slide to the floor. Music, under the direction of pianist Alvaro Hagopián, is quick-paced and mesmerizing. The musicians are merry men, who occasionally chip in with shouts, yips and yelps. Dominic Martínez is on bass, and Nario Recoba squeezes the bellows, and with flying fingers punches the buttons of the bandoneón. The wheezy, sometimes nasal street-organ-sound is a universe apart from the accordion, played with hands-on-keyboard.
Singers, María de los Angeles, Elisa Cordova, and Nelson Pino are introduced in El Choclo, (music by Angel Villoldo, lyrics by Enrique S. Discépolo.) These expressive, talented vocalists, whose beautiful voices are strong, resonant, and well-projected, make one wonder: Why use mics? But then again, you don’t want to miss a syllable of the poetry, such as: “….the tango was born and, like a scream, it ran away from the sordid suburbs looking for the sky;….” And the fluidity and sound balance seem about right.
Throughout this high-spirited, edgy show that takes us to the sad side of the street, questions are triggered. What’s the tango’s origin? What fuels it? Legend connects it to African slaves. But this is not a documentary. This is a romantic journey, a loosely connected collage based on painful regrets and hopeful recoveries.
First, let’s look at the misconceptions. The tango is not a set routine. It’s improvised, based on innovation. Secondly, the creative license taken is often breath-taking.
Mariela and Jeremías, who burn up the floor with their sensual sliding-sweeps, and balletic gestures, put women on an equal plane with men in “Pa’ que bailen los muchachos/For The Guys To Dance,”. Locked into nail-you-to-the-wall stares, Mariela, dressed in a dark lavender sheath, slit to her thigh, is wrapped in Jeremías’ embrace. They twirl wildly with whiplash turns. Together the couple lunge to the ground. Then come the breaks or stops in movement.
The huge misconception about these deliberate, jerky pauses, or traspiés, stumbles or trips, is that they are mistakes made by the performers. They are not. Neither are they syncopation. The hesitations are planned for dramatic effect. At the end, Mariela, concludes her spectacular pas de deux with Jeremías, in an arabesque pose, upside down, one leg up like an exclamation point. It’s defiance personified. The artists seem to say: ‘Turn the world upside down. Put women on top.’ It’s exciting and humorous. This number drew cheers and bravos from the audience.
Each act, as in a cabaret, has a twist or surprise that pleases. For example, Nelson, dressed in tux and the formal attire of a master of ceremonies, in “Mentiras/Lies” leads us into a nostalgic story of the girl next door who comes home with a baby. Nelson tells us in the lyrics that once he was a callow young guy who loved a country girl. María de los Angeles poignantly delivers the rest of the story in “Los cosos de al lao/The People Next Door,” The rebellious girl runs off to the city with a stranger, who deserts her. Forced to go home repentant to give birth to her illegitimate child, the girl-gone-wrong suffers isolation and criticism as a single mother. But the neighbors next door dance and celebrate the baby’s birth. Life above all. And even though Nelson laments the loss of his first innocent love, in “Sin Piel/Skinless,” (“I am going to learn to cry without suffering.”), life is valued above social approval.
In an indirect way, the performers arrive at a sublime resolution, as if drunk on the mystery of life. Straight from her heart, Elisa delivers, “Desde El Alma/From The Soul,” singing of love’s disappointment, by Rosita Melo, lyrics by Homero Manzi & Victor Pluma Vélez. For one fleeting moment, not mentioned in the program, Jeremías and Mariela whirl in to 3/4 waltz tempo, the European import. Mariela is dressed in a beige, gauzy floral skirt, a change from the flashy tight fitting sheath dress. It’s a poignant change as Elisa sings of the futility of mourning a lost love. “You live pointlessly sad.”
PURO TANGO II
Closes June 22, 2014
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
1 hour, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $42
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Yet Puro Tango II ends upbeat with philosophical resolution. And a potpourri of tango songs capture the impossible diversity. Maria tells Nelson “Memories, Nelson, are like good friends: they make reconciliations. One must know how to enjoy and how to suffer. At the end, what is important is not the years of living but the living in those years.”
The songs bring forth vivid memories and ultimately pay tribute to two, big Latin American cities, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, united by a common cultural identify. Embedded in the celebratory tango, “Montevideo III,” there is a fleeting mention of April 19th, 1825 when Uruguayan patriots, exiled in Argentina, landed on the eastern bank of the Rio de la Plata and began Uruguay’s fight for freedom from Brazil and national independence. So like two individual Latino lovers, two cities and countries are united eternally.
Puro Tango II continues a GALA tradition, similar to the staging of Canto Al Peru Negro (Song For Black Peru), in June 2011, that is both entertaining and enlightening. The surface of this complicated, rich history has only been scratched in Puro Tango II. I wanted more than one encore that could have continued as an all-night marathon. As a result, I left the GALA Tivoli Theatre, infected with tango mania, snapping my fingers and walking with a lighter step.
In Spanish with English Surtitles (translation by Hugo Medrano)
Puro Tango II . Conceived, Created and Directed by Hugo Medrano . Musical direction by pianist Alvaro Hagopián . . Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.