At GALA Hispanic Theatre's season-opening production, "Mexico: Noches Bohemias," the seating is intimate, the wine is flowing and the spirit of 1960s Mexico City is revived in song. This cabaret-style revue is based on the writings of columnist Alberto Domingo, who documented the cultural dynamic of his home town and was especially drawn to the colorful goings-on in local cantinas. Call it "Music and the City."
"Noches Bohemias," running for only 10 days, is a light opening for GALA, which is in the process of moving from the Warehouse Theater to the renovated Tivoli Theatre, where its next production will be staged. But there should be no complaints about its temporary venue, the lushly decorated 16th Street NW mansion that houses the Cultural Institute of Mexico.
For "Noches Bohemias," GALA transforms one high-ceilinged room of the institute into a Mexican cantina, with six-seat bistro tables -- and complimentary drinks -- to encourage preshow mingling. Onstage is a bar, a piano and a small screen, which shows slides of the musicians and singers whose work is performed throughout the evening.
A bartender (Manolo Santalla) serves as a narrator between songs, describing old Mexican watering holes as places where a patron could stop for a drink and end up spending all his money on sundries -- "appealing, exotic and useless" -- sold by wandering merchants. Once the atmosphere of the cantina is established, the bartender focuses on the music, using Domingo's words to relate the contributions of artists such as Celia Cruz, Lola Beltran and Lucha Reyes.
The dialogue of "Noches Bohemias" sets a nostalgic and often humorous tone, but it's only glue to link the performances.
Pianist Mari Paz -- who socialized with Domingo and was acquainted with many of the musicians paid tribute in the show -- and guitarist Jorge Anaya provide the accompaniment to the show's nearly two dozen numbers, which are sung by Anamer Castrello, Susan Leyva and Anaya himself.
All four performers, dressed in colorful, casual club outfits in the show's first half and in formal wear for the second, remain onstage when not performing, either drinking at the bar or dancing to the livelier numbers. Whether belting out heartbreaking ballads such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez's "El Rey" or negotiating the tricky chorus in "Cucurrucucu Paloma," which Beltran made famous, each singer boasts a powerful, passionate voice and has a turn at bringing the house down.
The quality and emotion of the performances break through any language barrier, but English speakers are at a slight disadvantage. GALA is testing a system that projects English surtitles above the stage -- which, in terms of timing, seems to be a great improvement over its usual method of translation through headsets -- but only the bartender's dialogue is translated during the show, with the lyrics of four songs printed in Spanish and English in the playbill. While the melodies are still enjoyable, the context of these gut-wrenchers seems to be key in making the experience of "Noches Bohemias" transcendent.
Mexico: Noches Bohemias, based on the writings of Alberto Domingo. Directed by Abel Lopez. Musical direction, Mari Paz; set, Abel Lopez; lighting, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Alessandra D'Ovidio; sound, Jarold Acosta Aragon. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Oct. 17 at the Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW. Call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.