‘Buena Vista Social Club’ Review: Bringing a Classic Record to Life

The boleros, sons, danzóns and other popular Cuban song forms captured on the hit 1997 album “Buena Vista Social Club” — and in a 1999 Wim Wenders documentary about the musicians who made it — are a marvel: diabolically catchy, lively yet poetic, mesmerizingly complex beneath their seeming simplicity.

Those are qualities that few jukebox musicals have going for them. Usually, if the borrowed tunes are catchy, they’re prosaic. Or if poetic then dreary. Or if complex then irrelevant.

But the full-of-riches jukebox musical “Buena Vista Social Club,” which opened on Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater, avoids all those problems. Particularly in its rendition of the “Buena Vista” songbook — including eight numbers from the original album and seven from later iterations — the production, directed by Saheem Ali, enhances (instead of merely exploiting) the music with the thrill of its liveness. The social dancing that accompanies some songs is often just as exciting. And if the narrative draped over those high points is a bit droopy, and the staging a bit choppy, they also give contour and context to what would otherwise be just a concert, albeit a joyous one.

Like the documentary, the musical’s book, by Marco Ramirez, uses the “Buena Vista” recording sessions, at a Havana studio in 1996, as its framework. There we efficiently meet the veteran musicians who have gathered under the direction of a young Cuban producer, Juan De Marcos (Luis Vega), to make an album of “songs from the old days.” These musicians include the singer-guitarist Compay Segundo (Julio Monge), the pianist Rubén González (Jainardo Batista Sterling), the tres player Eliades Ochoas (Renesito Avich) and the singer Ibrahim Ferrer (Mel Semé). Together they will prove, as De Marcos puts it, that “Mozart’s got nothing on us.”

So far, so semi-true. But Ramirez soon begins his departure from the facts by establishing the singer Omara Portuondo (Natalie Venetia Belcon) as the star of the sessions and thus of the show. (In reality, though she was already a Cuban national treasure, she sang just one track on the original album.)

Accurate to life or not — and perhaps it’s better to think of the musical as an adjacent story in the Buena Vista universe — she’s a fine theatrical creation: a musician of great emotion (Compay calls her “the Queen of Feeling”) and a woman of commensurate hauteur. When Juan tries to introduce an unexpected woodwind riff to her “scorching rendition” of the song “Candela,” she cuts him right down — and you don’t want to get cut down by the regal Belcon. “No one ever recorded a ‘scorching rendition’ of anything with a flute,” she says.

Omara is the musical’s portal to the past, which Ramirez, best known for another quasi-historical work — “The Royale,” inspired by the prizefighter Jack Johnson — traverses at liberty. We thus meet Omara not only in 1996 but also 40 years earlier, as a young woman on the edge of stardom in a double act with her sister, Haydee (Danaya Esperanza).

But while the Portuondo Sisters perform kitschy numbers for American tourists at the Tropicana nightclub, musical and political changes are brewing beyond its palmy grounds. Both can be found at the namesake Buena Vista Social Club, “a space where smoke and sweat fill the air,” according to a stage direction, and “where beer bottles keep clave rhythm.”

The musical’s fizzy club dances, choreographed by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, are a delight, our critic writes.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ramirez overburdens this past tense with heavy subplots: gunrunning, colorism, revolution, betrayal. The more contemporary scenes are correspondingly haunted by regrets and ghosts. (The main characters are all represented by younger versions of themselves; Omara and Haydee get dance doubles as well.) It’s too much story for a two-hour show, especially in the second act, when the weight of Cuba’s painful history threatens to smother the songs. They don’t need help to bare the sadness in their souls.

Still, even if you don’t understand their Spanish lyrics, the songs prevail. Never forced into literal service as signboards for the plot but instead performed atmospherically by characters who would actually sing them, they lend coherence and depth to the story with their exquisite harmonies, delirious polyrhythms and raw brass. The exceptional music production — the work of a team led by Dean Sharenow and Marco Paguia — enhances that effect with arrangements appropriate to the new contexts and the intimate space of the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater. The blessedly live-sounding sound design is by Jonathan Deans.

And though I was less impressed by a series of balletic duets for the young sisters, which feel labored, the fizzy club dances are a delight. As choreographed by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, they match and heighten the music with intricate close partnering as limbs find ever more intricate ways of closing the space between bodies.

Ali’s staging, on a unit set by Arnulfo Maldonado that aptly suggests some of the cramped spaces in which the story transpires, does not yet reach that level. It is too often difficult, with 17 cast members and nine core musicians on the small and flatly lighted stage, to tell which location we’re in: studio, club, hotel, esplanade. Sometimes which era, too, though Dede Ayite’s taxonomy of caps and fedoras, high-waisted pants, flowy tunics and sock-hop skirts (not to mention showgirl kitsch) offers delightful clues.

Cramped, too, is much of the action between the songs, lending a hectic feeling to material that wants more thoughtfulness or less bulk. Seeming to acknowledge that, the show ends weirdly and abruptly, as if cut off in mid-thought by a proctor’s stopwatch.

But when the staging, singing and playing come together, whether in exuberance or sorrow, I was happily reminded of another musical about music that originated at the Atlantic: “The Band’s Visit.” (David Yazbek, that show’s songwriter, is credited here as a creative consultant.) In such moments — the hypnotic “Chan Chan,” the ear-wormy “El Cuarto de Tula,” the heartbroken “Veinte Años,” the gorgeous “Drume Negrita” — you really do feel the past harmonizing with the present. What Compay says is true: “Old songs kick up old feelings.” Even, as in the showstopping and, yes, scorching “Candela,” with a flute.

Buena Vista Social Club
Through Jan. 21 at the Atlantic Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours.

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