Also see John's review of Low Down Dirty Blues
Desi Arnaz was born on March 2, 1917, in Santiago de Cuba, as Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, the only son of a prominent and wealthy family. His father was the mayor of Santiago, and his connections to to the Machado government forced the family into exile during the revolution of 1933. Desi and his family were left penniless, living in assorted abandoned warehouses in Miami. Taking whatever jobs he could, Desi was able to make money playing his guitar, and was discovered by Xavier Cugat. Desi played with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra for some time before venturing out on his own in Miami. According to Lucie Arnaz, in an attempt to compensate for the shortcomings of his opening night band, Desi was forced to "beat the hell out of a big Afro-Cuban drum" in his "dance of desperation." The resulting introduction of the Conga to America led to a dance craze that swept the nation.
In 1937 Desi Arnaz signed his first record contract, and became the toast of the toast of the town at New York's La Conga Club. After some film and Broadway work, and his marriage to Lucille Ball, he debuted his new band in December of 1945. Desi said he wanted to combine "the lushness of Kostelanetz with the Latin beat of Machito." His 1946 single "Babalu" was such a huge hit that it became his signature song for the rest of his life. His TV fame gained from the show "I Love Lucy" popularized the joyful sound and driving rhythm of Latin music. With a live 15-piece orchestra playing from the original charts of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, the show Babalu brings back to life all the flavor and excitement of the music of which Desi was so fond.
The scenic and lighting design for this production has all the color and glamour of the Tropicana Club, and provides great visual impact. The orchestra, led by musical director Ron Abel, and featuring Desi Arnaz, Jr. on percussion, plays the original Desi Arnaz charts impeccably. The orchestrations frankly deserve a bow all to themselves. Lucie Arnaz is more than just talented. Personable, charming, lovely, funny and sweetshe has that "it" factor. She sings, dances and provides engaging stories of her father's life all to perfection. One could wish for a story or two from her brother, but he remains behind the drum set for most of the show, and speaks only briefly.
Raul Esparza does not imitate or portray Desi Arnaz, but approximates the right style. Born in Miami of Cuban decent, Esparza relates stories of his own youth that really add nothing to the show but serve as mildly interesting filler. Several moments of speaking in Spanish would benefit from him bothering to translate for the audience. His voice is huge and filled with emotion, but it is not clear that he understands the difference between singing a big Broadway number and singing as the front man for a Latin band. He does not modify his technique enough to capture the smoothness of the style, and the partnership of his voice and the instruments. Undeniably talented, he is a bit lacking in the easy, suave masculinity of Desi Arnaz that sold songs such as "Babalu."
Valarie Pettiford is a puzzling addition to this show. Though possessed of very nice singing voice and a polished style that reminds one of a budding Shirley Bassey, she comes off as achingly insincere on stage. Her presence is not needed in a show that, at two hours and forty minutes, is too long. The addition of dancers is a welcome one as they bring to life our urge to move to the infectious Latin beats. Though both dancers featured in this production are lithe and graceful, they are missing some of the expected fire and passion; and the male dancer is a bit long in the tooth to be costumed shirtless on stage.
Lucie Arnaz may have a possible hit on her hands if she sticks to the basic beauty of what she has to offer. America loves Desi Arnaz. His songs and his life will always interest us. The orchestrations in Babalu are wondrous, and Lucy and Desi would be proud of the caliber of performer that their daughter Lucie is, and the musician that their son Desi has become. The rest is just excess baggage in need of being left behind for this show to take flight.
Babalu appeared July 8-11, 2010, in the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is made possible by the public support of the Miami-Dade County Mayor and the Board of County Commissioners, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, and the Miami-Dade County Tourist Development Council. It also receives generous support from private and corporate contributions to the Performing Arts Center Foundation of Greater Miami through its Membership Program, the City of Miami Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, the Dade Community Foundation, The MAP-Fund, the Sate of Florida, the Department of State, the Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is located at 1300 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami, and houses the 2,400 seat Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, as well as the 2,200 seat John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, and the 300 seat Carnival Studio Theater. For information, or to purchase tickets for the many diverse offering of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, you may contact them at 305-949-6722, or visit them online at www.arshtcenter.org/.