Bola: Cuba's Ambassador of Spoken Song

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Editorial Review

'El Bola' lays the exposition on thick in tale of Cuban singer-songwriter

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's hard to sort the naive from the tongue-in-cheek in "El Bola -- Cuba's King of Song" at GALA Hispanic Theatre. This world premiere musical biography focuses on Ignacio Jacinto Villa, the popular mid-century Cuban singer-songwriter nicknamed El Bola, and the storytelling technique is pure "Let's put on a show!" as a Washington, D.C., director ponders exactly how to celebrate this Latin entertainer.

Leading questions draw out facts. The director's wife asks whether the raspy-voiced El Bola is really worth the attention. El Bola's background is served up as the director -- an unabashed fan -- squabbles with an equally enthusiastic transgender performer during auditions. A journalist arrives to interview the director, the better to heave information at us.

Fending off such blunt exposition can wear you out, yet the show -- performed in Spanish, with English surtitles -- does have a pair of aces up its sleeve. One is the music, a collection of songs written by or associated with El Bola de Nieve (an ironic nickname that means "Snowball"). The four-piece band, tucked to one side of Osbel Susman-Pena's spare, elegantly designed stage, creates an infectious pulse for both dance tunes and ballads, so the show's sound is consistently enjoyable.

The other interest tickler is the choice to have three singers performing El Bola's repertoire. Marcelino Valdes plays El Bola, embodying the dark-skinned, moon-faced man who described himself as lacking glamour but possessing an ability to please. Valdes comes across as a vintage nightclub figure, formally dressed and smoothly wooing the audience with understated charisma.

Apparently that was not the whole El Bola story, though, which leads director Hugo Medrano to divide most of the rest of the songs between Mariana -- the flamboyant and often funny transgender performer -- and Madrina, an earth mother who brings in the cult religion Santeria. If Cuban writer Hector Quintero's script flatly reports on El Bola's repressed homosexuality, Mariana gives this a lively stage life, and it is Mariana who sings Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" (a number El Bola performed to some acclaim, apparently). Enrique Divine enters as a campy figure in drag, but his conviction and robust falsetto voice, to say nothing of his can-do attitude in a number of eye-catching dresses, makes the performance unexpectedly commanding.

Anamer Castrello's Madrina is equally assured; Castrello's low, full voice is wonderfully expressive, and she knocks out lullabies and love ballads with authority. All three singers are particularly adept at infusing the music with a smoldering, yearning quality that, the suggestion goes, is fundamental to El Bola.

Like Mariana, Madrina turns out to be slapstick-y as she divines -- in this loopy dramatic framework -- buried treasure in D.C. The scenario is ridiculous, but like El Bola himself, it seems to sense its weakness and smile, charming you into indulgence. It almost works.

By Hector Quintero. Directed by Hugo Medrano. Musical direction by Didier Prossaird; choreography by Jesus Gonzalez. Light design and projections, Klyph Stanford; costumes, Dan Iwaniec; sound design, Matt Otto. With Carlos Castillo, Karen Morales, Gino Tassara, Jonas Minino, Alvaro Palau Palomino, Ari Hernandez Myers, Jesus Gonzalez. About 2 hours 20 minutes.