Musical tempest on a small island

Milagro Theatre negotiates the troubled waters of Cuban identity in a new musical

The waters of a troubled past are explored in Óye Oyá, a buoyant new Cuban musical presented in Spanish with English supertitles at Milagro Theatre. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest, it has a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, airline pilot by day and prolific and acclaimed composer by night, whose music and lyrics for the show create a moving soundscape to explore modern-day Cuban identity conflict.

The roots of that conflict run deep, in politics, in history, and in this show. The island of Cuba has triggered anxiety on the international political stage for decades. The early 1990s, when Óye Oyá takes place, saw a new rush of worry as Cuba’s biggest Cold War backer, the U.S.S.R., was falling apart. You may remember news flashes of refugees on handmade rafts of plastic, wood, and tarp desperately attempting the passage to Florida. For some the romance of the Cuban Revolution and its bearded heroes remained. Yet there was also a sharp divide between Cuban-American historical memory and that of people who remained on the homeland. Fidel Castro’s recent death sparked tough debate on his legacy, making way once again for a nervous tick about Cuba’s future. While the country is opening its doors for business, refugees who were burned by Castro’s government are unwavering in their conservatism. The majority of them are Republicans, wanting a strong man to hand down sentencing on the Cuban government and uphold the embargo until the island nation changes politics.

Cuban tempest: a little rhythm, a little dance, a little romance. Photo: Russell J Young

Cuba’s many aspects are best felt in its music. Óye Oyá delivers a sample of the intricate rhythms and melodies that captivate hearts and pull feet onto dance floors, the mysterious arresting passion and ache that is born in Cuban song.

The story goes that the tiny island delivered every musical style to the big Southern continent except the old-time erotic dance of prostitutes in Argentina serving up the tango and the gentle rock of the West Africa-rooted samba. The rumba, the mambo, son, and dozens of other styles have their roots in the specific drumbeats of Santería groups, a native Cuban religion with deep ties to the Yoruba slaves who worked the sugarcane fields.

In this Tempest-tossed new musical the role of servant-trickster-fairy Ariel is taken by Doña Teresa. Óye Oyá‘s fairy is an orisha, the Santería wise woman oracle who serves as a guide between the forces of nature spirits and humans who sometimes forget their origins. Doña Teresa is invoked by Julana Torres, wearing a traditional orisha headdress and multi-layered rainbow colored costume. Throughout Óye Oyá, Torres gyrates in an orisha mystic trance summoning divine knowledge through her body, becoming a conduit of powerful messages from beyond the veil. She is less a handservant to Prospero (or Felo, in this case) than a teacher on equal footing with the castaway bibliophile. As in The Tempest, it’s an interference that draws multiple parties to a reconciliation, but Óye Oyá casts an authentic spell, leaving the false storybook magic of fables and fairytales on the cutting room floor.

Jimmy Garcia’s Felo also strikes an imposing figure as an exiled writer from Habana who has settled into a life of desperation as the owner of a coffee shop housed in a ruined shack. An old-school room Caliphone record player and a television of the same age take up most of his bar. Like many a middle-aged man who had a brief glimpse of promise in his youth, he’s adopted a permanent state of cantankerous. Felo wears no Merlin-esque cape or wood-carved staff: He dons a fine pressed linen shirt and soft spotless leather shoes, and sports a straw fedora rather that a wizard’s pointed hat. He’s a neat and well-groomed Cuban living in rural poverty. Garcia’s voice thunders with a tack-sharp delivery, drawing us into complete empathy for his broken dreams. A single father who missed his boat of promise to America, Felo ties himself to the local orisha, Doña Teresa, for a divine intervention to save his daughter’s future.

Felo’s daughter Yenisel or Yeni (Lori Flipe-Barkin) is not a naïve girl, like her counterpart Miranda in The Tempest. The bond between her and Felo is strong, but Yeni’s personality is even stronger. A young adult in the process of undoing the apron strings of childhood, Yeni is caught between her doting father’s vision of a happy future and honoring her own nature, which is guided by the constant presence of Doña Teresa. Yeni’s heart belongs with the Cuba of the people, the dance, the song.

Since the revolutions of last midcentury, the Caribbean islands have tackled the inheritance of colonialism by using the master’s words against him. The Spanish zarzuela, a kind of opera buffa that pokes fun specifically at politics, also has a long tradition in Cuba. Composer Ortega takes Martinez’s book for Óye Oyá and weds the two. In most decolonial unpackings of The Tempest, it is the wretched witch-born native son Caliban who takes center stage, with a close look at language as a weapon in the power struggle. Óye Oyá‘s Caliban, Canimao (Julio César Vásquez) is no hunchbacked naked fur beast, but rather a dusty-soled and sooty handyman. The fierce intelligence hiding behind an oppressed body is replaced with a soft-faced hustler who is constantly repairing the ramshackle antique devices in Felo’s cafe. Vásquez’s Canimao is introduced with a Guillermo Portabales-inspired guajira commiserating the universal problem of missing construction tools. Under Estefanía Fadul’s direction the zarzuela comedic break, the plight of the peasant, and Cuba’s strands of lineage are masterfully woven together by Ortega’s composition. Vásquez’s voice sustains and crescendos at just the right moments to tug at the audience’s conscience and pull out familiarity, while the musico’s (Dashel Ruiz’s) delicate guitar answers Vásquez with an Afro-Cuban blues.

Who has this tempest brought to the island from Felo’s past? Dmitri, Caridad and Javier, once close family friends who now live large in Miami. Of course rags-to-riches stories are seldom true, and Enrique Eduardo Andrade’s Dmitri is a good counterbalance to Garcia’s handwringing Felo. Dmitri will not bend, and in spite of his friendship with Felo, his feet are firmly planted by the sacrifices he took to stay on American soil. Out of this conflict shines Caridad (Amalia Alarcón Morris) who like Yeni and Doña Teresa is more open to honoring relationships born out of troubled pasts. Unlike the Bard’s play, in which Miranda is the only female figure seen on stage, Óye Oyá puts focus on the strength of women by shining a light on their characters. The question of whether Cuba is the fatherland or the motherland becomes central for the futures of Javier and Yeni – that, and and how healing can begin between their parents.

Scrutiny of the influence of American business has circled our own culture since the cleanup of Times Square and Broadway decades back in New York, and Óye Oyá reflects that change. The glass bulbs lighting the Great White Way were traded in for more modern, yet less warm features. Movies such as Spiderman are now recycled with Hollywood budgets for the Broadway stage. Curious and questionable shows like Enron: The Musical have been made. Óye Oyá is a breath of fresh air from the Disney spectacles, which may awe, overwhelm, and make great entertainment, but sometimes lack the human element we go to the theater for. Óye Oyá has the same attention to detail, an impressive and talented cast, a skilled director, a top-drawer composer and a good book, but the songs seem more true.

Of course, Americans have to make an entrance in a contemporary Cuban musical about immigration. Alex (Andrés Alcalá) and Francis (Janelle VanPelt) are the perfect cartoon characters of Americans behaving badly while traveling. They go on tour buses and whisk away into despair without a local happy-hour drink in hand. The couple smile and laugh too much, too broadly, and too big. They wear Sears sets of South American-inspired clothing. Alex and Francis pine for fast food like a franchised Moses at the edge of the desert.

In the midst of their tourist struggle, the imagination of the market hits their fevered brains. Drunk on the rum they’ve stolen from Canimao, they promise to save Cuba with good old American junk food. New York-based director Fadul’s hand in Óye Oyá shows right through in an elaborate choreography and chorus that overtake Milagro’s theatre space with a hysterical pageant, leaving the audience surprised, hammered in the gut from laughing, and in awe of the cast performing Ortega’s piece.

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Óye Oyá continues through May 27 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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