A major theatrical endeavor came to fruition last week in Portland–a collaboration between Artists Repertory Theatre, the all-Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre, and actor-playwright Carlos Lacamara.
Lacamara’s first musical, the play depicts the lives of Cubans living in Fidel Castro’s “special period in a time of peace”. It was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when the Soviets’ economic support of Cuba quickly waned, leaving Cuba in a time of severe rationing, embargos, and economic crisis.
Amidst these hardships, music and dance flourished, providing a joyous counterpoint to the hard times where Cuba’s people begged, bartered, and hustled to survive.
Cuba Libre deals with the issues of Cuba in the mid-1990s through the eyes of struggling band leader Alonso (German Alexander), the young Cuban doctor Lisandra (Janet Dacal), Alonso’s band member friends, and his party-hardliner mother, Olga (Luisa Sermol). The plot jumps between the band’s start-up days in Havana and modern-day Miami. This had me mightily confused at times, so if you attend the play, be aware that when Annie (Sara Hennessy) is on stage, we’re in Miami.
With Tiempo Libre on stage and rocking out, the music is authentic as well as delightful. Songs are in Spanish, with translations projected above the stage. Nearly every scene features beautiful dancers with endless legs doing things that should not be humanly possible. There is romantic interest, hustle, love and death–everything one needs for a great musical. If you enjoy shows such as Rent and Dream Girls, you’ll love Cuba Libre.
The show is such a labor of love, and every pain was taken to make it a Cuban experience, from the Lacamara’s book, to the music and lyrics by Havana-born Jorge Gomez (founder of Tiempo Libre), to choreography by Cuban-American Maija Garcia, to direction by Artists Rep Artistic Director Damaso Rodriguez. We can greatly appreciate the hardships suffered by the Cuban people and the gifts those who made it here have given by sharing their culture.
There are a few rough spots in the show. The first act seemed a bit choppy. But these small matters can be easily smoothed out. Cuba Libre has Broadway aspirations, and I believe these goals are attainable. A good, well-executed story based on real events, plus music that makes you want to jump out of your seat and dance has always been a winning combination.
Cuba Libre runs through November 15 at the Winningstad Theatre.