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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Mambo Kings
Needs More Dancing and Less Talk

Also see Richard's reviews of 3F, 4F and the Baby

The Mambo Kings
Esai Morales and Christiane Noll
Best of Broadway is currently presenting the world premiere of the new musical The Mambo Kings prior to its opening on Broadway, slated for July 18th at the Broadway Theatre. The musical is based on Oscar Hijuelos’ 1989 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Hijuelos also wrote the musical's book with Arne Glimcher. Carlos Franzetti composed some of the romantic numbers while Arne Glimcher contributed the lyrics. The production look reminds me of the turbulent years of the 1950s, and nightclubs like the Ambassador or Ciros. This production probably could play at one of the hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas without the book. A musical that is supposed to be glitzy has lost a lot of its glitz do to an insipid book and poor casting of the male leads.

Warner Brothers did a moderately successful film in 1992. It gathered little interest and grossed about seven million dollars nationwide. The film is notable for including the first appearance in an American film by Antonio Banderas, who could not speak English - he performed his lines phonetically. His co-star Armand Assante could not speak Spanish, so he had to perform those lines phonetically.

The Mambo Kings chronicles the journey of the Castillo brothers, Cesar (Esai Morales) and Nestor (Jaime Camil), from Havana in the early '50s to the stages of the grand dance clubs of New York City. The script follows the film closely.

The rise and fall of the brothers' band and their knotted romantic lives are followed. We have seen similar stories over and over again. The scenes are sometimes disjointed as we watch five years in the lives of these brothers. It is only the dancing numbers that save the musical from becoming very commonplace. It is a cross between Sweet Smell of Success and Copacabana, and some of the romantic songs, with the exception of Robert Kraft and Arne Glimcher's Oscar-nominated “Beautiful Maria of the Soul,” are not memorable. Several of the songs from the film have been incorporated into this score, including Sandoval’s “Mambo Caliente,” Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan,” and Fernandez Diaz' “Guantanamera.” There should more songs with that Latin beat.

The Mambo Kings' first ten minutes, taking place in a Havana nightclub, is a poor start for a flashy musical. The scintillating choreography by Sergio Trujillo suddenly stops so we can watch a fight between Cesar and a nightclub owner. As a result, the brothers have to flee Havana and go to their cousin’s apartment in New York. The audience would rather see those talented kids dancing their backsides off than see a stage fight. You could have just seen the brothers leaving the club and the rest explained in dialogue when they arrive in New York. This is not the only time the spectacular dancing stops to give us a soggy song with bad lyrics. It happens at the beginning of the second act at the Club Babalu, which starts out like gangbusters and may you think they finally are on track. However, the dancing suddenly stops and we hear Dolores, Nestor, Cesar and Vanna sing a humdrum song called “The Quartet” that might have come out of a scene from Aida.

Esai Morales (Lt. Tony Rodriguez in NYPD Blue) plays the flashy guitarist Cesar with little or no spark. He acts like he is still in the television series and he does not have a singing voice. He cannot reach many of the notes in the song “Te Amo.” Jaime Camil (popular actor and singer in Mexico) as the shy trumpet brother Nestor is very good when singing a song in his native language Spanish. However, his voice cracks when trying to sing English in some of the songs that would be better sung in Spanish. His acting is wooden and he seems more of a character without any human qualities. (Tito Guizar had the same quality of acting when he appeared in Mexican films of the ‘30s and ‘40s)

The female members of the cast fare much better in acting and singing. Christiane Noll (Urinetown and City of Angels on National tour and Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway) as the brassy cigarette girl and girlfriend of Cesar gives an engaging performance. She is prominent as Vanna Vane and makes a vigorous appearance. She also belts out the blues number “Alone in the Dark” with a powerhouse, heartfelt voice. Cote de Palbo (recently on the TV series The Jury) as Nestor’s wife is charming as a naïve woman who has pleasant vocal chops in “Can’t Live Without My Love.” Albita (International Latin star who has appeared in many companies) is galvanizing as the narrator. She has a voice that is expressive and full of the Spanish soul. She should have more scenes since she is charismatic in the role.

Comedy relief is provided by Dennis Staroselsky (The Chosen at Paper Mill Playhouse as Bernadito Mandlebaum), the only Jew in the band of Latinos, and Justina Machado (Vanessa Diaz on HBO’s Six Feet Under), Bernadito's girlfriend who has one liners that come directly from a ‘50s musical. Allen Hidalgo (many Broadway tours) plays Desi Arnaz as a caricature rather than a human being. (I don’t think Desi Sr. or Desi Jr. would appreciate his characterization). The integrated scene on a giant screen with the real Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy paired with Hidalgo, Morales and Camil is beautifully accomplished. (They used the same type of integration in the film.)

David Alan Grier (Tony Nomination for The First) has replaced Billy Dee Williams as Fernando Perez. This is a throwaway role that is almost a glorified walk on. Fortunately, the producers have given him a swinging number, “Sign! Sign! Sign!,” to show off his vocal chops. Unfortunately, he gets drowned out by the orchestra and chorus.

Sergio Trujillo's choreography is exciting. The dancers are vibrantly athletic and diverse when doing the mambo, tango, jitterbug and some cha-cha. There is even a great tap dancing number in the production. The musical comes alive when the dancers are on stage. They also give the production an up beat when they do their final number which is similar to the final scene of Mamma Mia!

Riccardo Hernandez’ set design is strictly a Hollywood musical set that Fox studios would have presented in their films. (One might think that Carman Miranda and Don Ameche will come out to entertain us.) Wonderfully illuminated palm fronds frame the two-tiered nightclub set. The large orchestra under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos is on the second tier facing the audience. However, there were times I did not hear the Latin beat due to the excessive use of the brass. Neon lights flash everywhere, and signs with the names of the clubs in lights come down from the rafters. There are bright lights everywhere and it is one busy set. The costumes by Ann Roth are Technicolor bright.

The Mambo Kings could be a good audience-pleasing show if they increase the dancing and take out some of the dull speaking scenes, since this type of rise to riches with troubles along the way had been done so often in the past.

The Mambo Kings plays at the Golden Gate Theatre, Taylor at Market, San Francisco through June 19th. Tickets on sale at Ticketmaster 415-512-7770 or go to www.bestofbroadway-sf.com for more information. Les Miz comes to the Curran Theatre for a limited engagement on June 9th.


Photo: Joan Marcus


- Richard Connema



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