From Bola to Babalú

Jose Sueiro

Bola de Nieve, singer and piano player, is something of a mystery to most modern Latin music aficionados. His heyday was back before the mambo became salsa and when Lucy’s Ricky Ricardo was still playing bongos in the Xavier Cugat band.

Bola was short, round and somewhat plain of features and spent the good part of his career singing in cabarets and lounges from Cuba to Mexico City, far from the bright lights of Broadway and the New York Latin scene. Add to all of this that he was a gay figure in a macho world and follower of the Santeria traditions of his ancestors, Bola wouldn’t appear to be the ideal subject for a cabaret style musical in 2010. Nevertheless, there was something quite exquisite about this plain, rotund Afro-Cuban with the raspy voice, polished piano playing and plaintive soul that made him something of a Latin Fats Waller.

Cabaret style shows based on Latin American music and poetry of African roots are traditional fare at GALA Theatre and they present them very well. It‘s part of their varied and eclectic repertoire.
While there is considerable exposition in the show itself, the music is glorious and the interpretations are on target.

Didier Prossaird, the talented local band leader, arranger and composer has put together a four piece combo that delivers an understated, elegant and piercing score perfectly in sync with the theme, singers and dancers.

Bola’s music, although deeply grounded in his Afro-Cuban heritage, was varied and refined for intimate night club performances. Hugo Medrano, the director of the show, in a daring and inventive manner, divides Bola’s song book among three performers, in this manner accentuating the major sexual and political themes of his life.

Marcelino Valdes, of the famed musical Valdes family, performs as Bola and does so with understated charm, but it is Anamer Castrillo, the powerful and versatile Puerto Rican singer, who is captivating and magnificent. She performs Bola’s signature tune, the Afro-Cuban lullaby ‘Drume Negrita’ with such authority it leaves you mesmerized. She has performed as the late Celia Cruz to rave reviews and is also a regular with the Washington Opera. She’s among the most accomplished singers in the region and a joy to listen to particularly when she sings the music of her heritage and traditions.

Enrique Divine appearing as Mariana, the transgendered female performer, sings everything in a strong falsetto voice and absolutely steals the show. Every time he appears onstage the energy and eyes of the audience are upon him. While Anamer has the audience singing along under their breath, every appearance by Divine puts a smile on people’s faces even before he opens his mouth. Chatty, camp and, of course, naughty, he/she is, in a word… Divine. The interpretation of ‘La Vie on Rose’ is simply ‘to die for’.

GALA Theatre also has a tradition of embracing Afro-Cuban culture and working with local Cuban musicians. For this piece they’ve integrated a fanciful plot aside having to do with Santeria. As part of this homage to Afro-Cuban heritage the Theater will co-sponsor together with the D.C. Humanities Council and the Latino Program at the Smithsonian Institute a workshop on Santeria traditions for Saturday, June 26th at 3 pm. (The workshop is free and if you attend the show afterwards, GALA will discount your tickets). This reviewer will be one of the hosts of the workshop on that afternoon.

If you enjoy the music and culture of Cuba and the banter of a slightly risqué night club act, you’ll enjoy the new show at GALA. They have ended their 34th season with a spare, elegant production featuring wonderful music and a ‘simpatico’ cast that is superb.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login