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The Miami Herald Jordan Levin Column: ‘Miami Libre’ a Disjointed, Uninspired Effort

July 31, 2008

By Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald

Jul. 31–Miami Libre tries to be many things: a sexy Vegas revue, a classic musical with a love story, a feel-good immigrant-makes-good drama, a political and musicological screed on Cuba and Miami.

What it is not is a coherent show. While there is certainly much to enjoy — from what seem to be extra joints in the terrific dancers’ nonstop hips to the exuberant music of band Tiempo Libre, whose story Miami Libre tells, to charismatic lead Jencarlos Canela — Miami Libre feels sketched and pinned together.

The show, which had its official opening at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall on Wednesday night, never really lets loose or comes to emotional or physical life. The most genuine moments are the throwaways: a Cuban cop threatening a couple of drunks with “una multa por feocidad” (a fine for ugliness); a vocal and percussive jam on pizza boxes.

Miami Libre uses a narrator, the engaging Alex Fumero as Santeria god Elegua, to mostly tell, rather than show us, the story of Pepito (Canela), a Havana musician who takes a raft to Miami seeking freedom, success and love, all of which he finds in a hop-skip-jump from Krome to a Little Havana club to Latin Grammys. And it tries to unite the somber, almost unknowably painful journey of Cuban rafters with a sassy Latin revue and inch-deep success story.

The result is that everything stays on the surface. The club set-up at the theater, with table seating, drinks, and performers dancing through the audience or bringing people up onstage, makes for a fun breakdown between stage and life, but it also keeps things feeling very Vegas.

We meet Pepito in his Havana solar California (“where it’s easy to check in but very hard to leave”), partying with his gente and reuniting with Maria (Everlayne Borges, who combines an engaging, giggly gift for comedy with silky, sultry dancing), who’s visiting from Miami.

After Pepito explains that his music, timba, is the real expression of the people, his show at a Havana club is cut short when he sings a critical political song. Soon after, he’s arrested, then takes off on a raft for Miami. There he finds Maria working in a club run by Ramon (Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas), a former singer at the Tropicana who was once in love with Lola. Almost immediately Pepito is phoning Lola with news that he’s been nominated for a Grammy, and everyone is soon reunited.

What’s particularly odd about this is that almost everyone involved in Miami Libre has lived its story. Jorge Gomez, whose band Tiempo Libre plays real deal, hardcore timba in the show and on whose life the story is based, struggled before his band was nominated for two Latin Grammys. All but one of the 14 dancers are from Cuba, and the cast, particularly Yolanda Musterlier as Pepito’s grandmother, the gutsy, aging diva Lola, exudes Cubania.

Director and writer Toby Gough has been to Cuba numerous times and produced several revues from the island, and the show is full of Havana references, but he also goes for knee-jerk political lines and has the actors declaim, explain and spout cliches. “The stars are so close you can almost reach out and touch them.”"The only thing he had to comfort him was his music.” And choreographer Rolando “Lenin” Ferrer keeps the dancers moving in repetitive lines and patterns that — mean mambo looks very much like rumba looks very much like timba.

The audience mostly ate it up, but it’s hard to predict how Miami Libre, which producers hope to take on tour, will play for audiences who won’t automatically cheer for lines telling Castro to shave his beard and go to hell. Maybe they’ll love the Vegas vision of Cuba and Miami. It’s just too bad this show can’t give them the real one.

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