AFTER SEEING Carlos Lacámara's musical Cuba Libre at the Winningstad Theatre, I want to apologize to all the girlfriends I never let teach me how to salsa. Artists Repertory Theatre's play is built around the music of Grammy-nominated all-Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre, features more musicians and dancers than actors, and is an absolute blast.
Artists Rep Artistic Director Dámaso Rodriguez, who has been a cultural ambassador to Cuba, also premiered Lacámara's Exiles last season. Tiempo Libre's founder Jorge Gómez is credited with music and lyrics, and many of the songs in the play can be heard in some form on Tiempo Libre albums. The lyrics are a mix of English and Spanish, and I have to hope that the Spanish lyrics make more sense than English lines like, "Both our bodies are aligned, and our minds fit together equally," which is nonsense.
In fact, the writing is largely artless, obviously secondary to Gomez's music and the choreography of Maija Garcia, which is enormous, emotive, and furiously political.
The plot: Alonso, a middle-aged Cuban American bandleader faced with losing his lover/manager, reflects on his past in Cuba and the people he left behind when he escaped. German Alexander is charm personified as Alonso. His swagger and faith in himself above all else make credible his most vital quality: a total unwillingness to see the oppression around him.
One of the play's best scenes is a danced depiction of the Cuban economy, in which Alonso needs a trumpet, but all he has to trade is a jacket, and the woman with a trumpet needs new teeth. The dentist needs milk, a woman with milk needs a shoe fixed, the cobbler needs a carburetor, etc.—until someone finally says, "A jacket." Garcia's choreography in this scene is especially visceral, both fun and deeply frustrated.
Alonso's love interest in Cuba is Lisandra, played by the magnetic Janet Dacal, with a voice beautiful enough that the woman next to me in the theater literally said some variation of "Oh my God" after every one of Dacal's songs. Luisa Sermol is another standout supporter as Alonso's mother Olga, seemingly the last Castro supporter in Havana.
Where the writing really works is in a secondary plot about two young Cuban men, Hector and Rudy. An early-days AIDS story with a Cuban quarantine angle, it's a tragically romantic subplot that somehow allows for some sad comedy involving Rudy trying to get HIV from American tourists so he can join Hector on the quarantine island. Lacámara's high-wire act there would be a lost cause if not for Jose Luaces' heartbreaking and humanely hilarious performance as Rudy and Brandon Contreras' Hector, whose rendition of "Somebody to Love Me" is the rawest and most emotional instance in the play of music as escape—bringing a palpable mortality to the repeated phrase "I need somebody to love me until the end of time."
But overall, this music is joyous and immensely entertaining, down to the house party of a closing number, and the ensemble of dancers alone would be worth the price of admission. But Cuba Libre, despite its lackluster book, is more than a Tiempo Libre concert: It's a reminder of the power of music to transcend pain, and a warning not to use escape as an excuse to forget.