When Artists Repertory Theatre’s Cuba Libre starts to heat up—when the band Tiempo Libre has time to do some serious digging on a song, the cast of excellent singers is in full voice, and the dancers are stretching and entwining in the most sinuous ways—well, that’s just about the best party imaginable. And if you’re in the audience, instead of just observing and attempting to channel the thrills vicariously, you may just find yourself led onstage where the action is hottest. Axiom: The cool distance between audience and performer melts when booties are shaken with intent and abandon.
At the beating heart of this world premiere musical—music by Jorge Gómez, book by Carlos Lacámara (who wrote last season’s Exiles), choreography by Maija Garcia, direction from Dámaso Rodriguez, all Cubans or Cuban-Americans—the blood is flowing in salsa rhythms, more or less, and that’s a very good thing. I’m less sure of the story itself, which is loosely based on the experiences of Gómez, and the sense it tries to make of life in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union—and the subsequent collapse of Soviet subsidies to Cuba. But during the show, every time an alarm went off in my head, someone started singing or undulating or the beat became too infectious to maintain my reservations for long.
Let’s see. Where were we? We were counting the ways that Cuba Libre partied down. Number one: Tiempo Libre, led byGómez , was founded in 2001 from a group of Cuban musicians who had known each other in music school in Cuba and then found each other again after leaving the country. The seven-man band has had plenty of time to find a groove based in Cuban popular music, and they are terrific. Dial them up on your streaming music service (if you believe in such things) and see what I mean.
Choreographer Garcia directed Salsa, Mambo Cha Cha Cha in Havana earlier this year, and she served as creative director on the Broadway show Fela!, a revue based on the music of the great Afrobeat proponent Fela Kuti. The stage space was a little cramped for dancing, but she figured out ways to pack in imaginative duets and clever interweaving of the fine group of dancers assembled for the show.
Finally, this cast can really sing (and move, for that matter). German Alexander (who has lengthy musical credits) plays Alonso, the protagonist of the story, and he animates the faster songs, along with band vocalist Xavier Mili Saint-Ives. The ballads belong mostly to Brandon Contreras and Jose Luaces, who play gay lovers and bandmates of Alonso, and to Janet Dacal as Alonso’s Cuban love interest Lisandra. All of them have excellent New York and national touring show credits (Dacal starred in In the Heights, for example), and it showed. The Contreras-Luaces duet Yo Estoy Aqui weaves higher and higher into the falsetto range, melody and harmony pure as gold throughout. And Dacal has a couple of stunning second half numbers.
So, right, when the music is playing, all is right with Cuba Libre, and when the story follows the comic wheeling and dealing of Alonso, ditto. Cuba in the ‘90s was plunged into a terrible Depression when Soviet subsidies ended, and ordinary Cubans had to build a barter, DIY economy to get things done. Alexander makes a great middle man, beguiling and energetic, exactly the kind of guy you can imagine setting up a long series of transactions to secure a new trumpet for a musician in his band, or disinfectant for Lisandra, a doctor in the clinic to which he’s been assigned. His motives are ulterior, of course. His band is recording a song and the trumpet is crucial, and Lisandra, well, she’s smart, tough, and turns heads when she walks into a room. Enough said.
Alonso’s philosophy is a simple one: When times are tough, do something to make yourself happy. And when Alexander spools it out, it even makes a certain amount of sense, especially in the context of ‘90s Cuba. It works with Lisandra, and she’s not easy to persuade.
But it doesn’t work with Annie (Sara Hennessy) in America. Yes, Cuba Libre is a flashback play, back and forth between Cuba and the US, where Alonso has finally fled, following his brother and abandoning his mother and Lisandra. He and Annie have a relationship, but it’s cracking, primarily because Alonso insists on keeping things at that superficial, make-yourself-happy level. Which means never talking about what he left behind in Cuba. Annie senses the falseness in this and so in their relationship. So, the crux of the musical is a couple of psychological questions. Can Alonso acknowledge the mixed feelings he has about leaving Cuba? More than that, can he reassess his past and integrate it into his present?
Sometimes you reach a point in a place when you just know it’s time to leave. You feel trapped and defeated, often on a number of fronts. You pull up stakes and light out for the territories. It happened to me, and I came to the Northwest. Somewhere today it happened to someone in Portland, who packed up a bag, gave the cat and bike to a kindly neighbor, took one last toke of legal weed, and headed back to the bluegrass of Old Kentucky.
Leaving Cuba wasn’t quite like that, of course. Cubans built rafts and tried to make it to Florida, Mexico or Central America, and many of them died. Or they defected when their sports team, dance troupe or music group performed outside the country. Those who made it knew that coming back would be impossible, at least for the foreseeable future, so the commitment required was different from the decision to move from one side of the U.S. to another. And the Cuban refugee is different in degree from refugees from Syria, say, Afghanistan or Iraq, fleeing a war zone—just to describe the continuum of immigration very sketchily.
The temptation is to make leaving into a political statement of some sort, instead of something more complex. Which is what Cuba Libre ends up doing. Cuba is a hellhole manufactured by Fidel Castro, the only man in Cuba, according to a speech delivered by Alonso’s brother Ignacio. I’d only point out a couple of things to Ignacio, who seems to be a very sweet guy. The policy of the US government over the years has been to destroy the Cuban economy in any possible way, and it hasn’t been altogether unsuccessful. And there are degrees of hellhole: Cuba is better off than various other Caribbean countries by many measures, despite the policies of the US, and better off now than it was before Castro.
Maybe you want to debate that last clause, and if you disagree with me, fine. I’m just pointing out that Cuba Libre might be better off without that political gloss, without making me argue with it in my head. Alonso’s journey—musical, romantic, philosophical, physical—is plenty to support a story. It’s fine if he says that he’s sick of Fidel and the local committees and he’s ready to get out, as long as we understand that he’s a restless guy who wants to conquer the world with his music. Which we do. He’d probably light out from Portland, too.
In a key speech, Alonso says he is leaving for America because he needs to be where he can hope. That is a perfectly valid thing for his character to say, psychologically speaking. But America, we know, is also a place where people feel hopeless. Lots of them. So, the equations Alonso sets up—America equals hope; Cuba equals hopelessness—is for many people a false one, though, of course, it may be true for him. Hope is a pretty subjective thing, it turns out, not the objective condition the musical suggests.
Now that we have that out of the way, how about some more dancing? Because at this point I find it necessary to remind myself that Cuba Libre is great fun, that Tiempo Libre is a great band, that Alexander’s Alonso is one slick character and a sweet-talking ladies’ man, that the falsetto of Contreras reaches the sky. Focus on those and other debates start to evaporate, which is the point of a party in the first place.
Cuba Libre continues at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, through November 15. The company has a full set of lectures and panels accompanying the show, and OPB will feature the musical in a special half-hour show on its Oregon Art Beat show 8 pm Thursday (Oct. 15). OPB began following the show last year.