Artists Rep’s most ambitious production this year, Cuba Libre is a big-budget gamble, an original musical boasting a cast of 21 and Grammy-nominated timba band Tiempo Libre onstage for the entire show. We sent two Portland Monthly critics to assess whether it paid off. Arts Editor Fiona McCann was there for opening night, and Assistant Editor Ramona DeNies saw the same show a week later. Read on for their verdicts on this Portland premiere with Pan-American aspirations.
The story—of a Cuban musician who leaves home for the US (loosely based on the story of Tiempo Libre's real-life front man Jorge Gómez)—is told in a series of flashbacks, detailing the canny machinations of our protagonist, Alonso, as he finds ways to make life work in an economically-strapped, heavily-rationed country. He falls in love, he finds his passion—but in the end, he has to sacrifice one to follow the other.
FM: Full disclosure: I have a keen and personal interest in immigrant stories, because I’m an immigrant myself. Though I came from Ireland for different reasons and under vastly different conditions and circumstances (and with less fluid hips), I’m still invested in seeing how this story of loss and lost-ness will play out. Fingers crossed for a happy ending . . .
RD: I’m a long-time Latin music nut (my record collection spans vintage boogaloo to Colombian vallenato), so Cuba Libre had me at the word timba. Sizzling live score from Tiempo Libre? Yes, please. Broadway-scale production and original script from Carlos Lacámara (the pen behind last season’s Exiles)? Sounds promising—let’s see.
FM: In one kinetic, tightly choreographed early scene set in Cuba, Alonso demonstrates his black market skills as he finds a trumpet for his band mate, but only after successfully bartering milk and dentistry—among other things—along the way. It’s expertly executed, vibrant, and comical, with Maija Garcia’s crisp choreography on glorious display in a scene that’s seamlessly integrated into the storyline.
RD: Magic happened mid-way through the second act, with the duet of the very vampy Rudy (Jose Luaces) and his sweet baboo Hector (Brandon Contreras). I scared myself with sudden, all-too sincere tears; Luaces and Contreras had the trifecta—strong acting, golden voices, and a substantial backstory involving the AIDS quarantine camps of Cuba’s "Special Period."
THE OFF NOTE
FM: The politics. Because this is a play about Cuban immigrants, so there’s gotta be a political subtext, right? Cuba comes off as a country troubled by damaged systems and poverty, and presided over by a megalomaniac leader—who’s going to argue with that?—but there’s no such critique leveled at America, nor any mention of the US role in Cuba’s diminished state. Sure, living in Cuba in Fidel’s latter years was no joke, but the set-up—Cuba/despair versus America/hope—is simplistic and occasionally heavy-handed. The finale of two unfurling flags—one Cuban, one American, see?—was an unfortunate low point after a kick-ass finale.
RD: Apparently, in musicals, there's a rule: no matter what other fine ballads round out a score (see above), the leads’ tragic love song must go on. “American Dream”—in which Alonso’s ticket out of town means leaving the girlfriend who made it possible (in a corrupt barter system, by sleeping with a festival organizer)—is a lackluster jumble. The scene, like many others, is a flashback, so we already know Alonso gets a new girl in Miami. And he’s not exactly the reflective sort, which, as this play winds down, means we're sensing (accurately, it turns out) that our intrepid bandleader isn't going to make meaning of the relationship, of Cuba, of America. He’s just, you know, gotta go, baby.
FM: Timba! That crazy, syncopated rhythm coming from a high-energy, kick-ass band on stage for the whole show is worth the ticket price alone. Add in Garcia’s clever choreography, a hilarious Michael Jackson moment, and some truly poignant theater, and Cuba Libre’s a win. Sure, there were elements that were hard to invest in—does anyone really care about his American love interest, when we’re all clearly required to root for his Cuban one?—and the narrative arc could use some fine-tuning, but who goes to a musical for the plot? In the end, the immigrant struggle to integrate a past life with an unconnected present gets its theatrical moment to make sense of the flashbacks, and only the coldest heart could hold out against the heat of 21 high octane performers, singing and dancing up a Cuban summer on a fall evening in Portland.
RD: An international cast of smokin’ dancers, polyrhythms so fine as to set on fire even the soggiest audience member, a world premiere bank-rolled by a New York producer—clearly, Cuba Libre is a show with Broadway ambitions. To get there, though, this song-and-dance show needs a stronger third pillar in its storyline. Lacámara’s reliance on flashbacks feels half-baked as a structural device, and the dialogue plays, more often that not, as mere scaffolding (wooden, at that) between songs. I’d see Cuba Libre again, to feast my eyes on Maija Garcia’s intricate, gleeful choreography. But without a cleaner through-line—and more to chew on—I’m still hungry for the story itself.
Artists Repertory Theatre's Cuba Libre runs through Nov 15 at the Winningstad Theatre.