Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano

Sandra Delgado's musically-rich but too monologue-heavy play makes its West Coast Debut inside an historic outdoor setting

By: Jul. 28, 2023
Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Maria Jimena Gastelum and Sandra Delgado.
Photo by Paul Lester/SCR.

Now in its third consecutive summer of outdoor, open-air theater presentations at the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, South Coast Repertory's 2023 entry in its annual "Outside SCR" series is Sandra Delgado's play-with-music LA HAVANA MADRID, which continues performances through August 4, 2023.

First produced in 2017 in the city of Chicago (the setting of the titular, real life club featured in the play) and is now in the midst of its first ever non-Chicago production here in Orange County, the play became a surprise cult hit, seeing itself get upgraded from its first tiny venue to much larger theaters later to satisfy demand. Suffice it to say, arriving with that kind of track record understandably sets up high expectations for its West Coast Debut, particularly when it prominently features its author and creator in the spotlight role, and is being hosted inside a very unique outdoor venue with a very loaded history.

Alas, while LA HAVANA MADRID certainly has its fair share of interesting and even poignant moments, the overall production feels surprisingly low-stakes, and only really becomes much more lively and boisterous when it reaches its celebratory music-filled finalé, where the play's impressive on-stage band rouses the crowd into enough of a fiery frenzy that many were compelled to leap to their feet and dance in the aisles during its opening night performance. Seeing all these people around us dancing with joyful abandon actually made me smile---but then reminded me immediately that this communal feeling of music moving its present listeners is truly the show's most significant saving grace.

It didn't help that the open-air outdoor venue---which is supposed to occur inside an indoor nightclub---has its first act unfold before sunset, still with hints of daylight, somewhat marring its intended illusion. Soon, moonlit darkness finally arrives in time for the second act (the more captivating of the two acts) but the lawn chair-lined, graduation ceremony seating configuration keeps the action at a distance, and obscures any possibility for an immersive experience. Much of the staging here at the Mission feels like an afterthought or a compromise dictated by the venue.

In that sense, this relatively new play---carrying a very palpable work-in-progress vibe throughout---has lots of potential with more tinkering and restructuring. Presently, at its core, this well-intentioned theatrical endeavor---here directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce---is simply a collection of sincerely-delivered first-person testimonials (reportedly based on real stories) from newly arrived, Spanish-speaking immigrants to Chicago in the 1960's, coming from places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Colombia.

Act One explores a hopeful first half of the decade, filled with humor and longing, while the more intriguing, deeply layered Act Two explores the decade's more dangerous latter half marked by increased violence, separatism, and racism.

Many of these new arrivals, as expected, came to the U.S. with various wants, dreams, and motivations: some are seeking refuge or safety, while others wish for prosperity and a better life. Most, of course, want a piece of that infamous so-called American Dream.

The storytellers' common connective tissue is that each of these people, we surmise, eventually found sanctuary, community, and, perhaps, a little piece of home inside Chicago's welcoming La Havana Madrid nightclub, where its aptly-named hostess/chanteuse, La Havana Madrid (played by the show's author herself Sandra Delgado) doles out infectious Latin rhythms with her house band while cooing seductively behind each patron, providing each featured immigrant a safe platform and a spotlight to spill their tea about their various paths that led them here to this stage.

But as each story is orated directly to the audience, the nightclub simply becomes just a passive (but sparkly) background visual, when it's really begging to be an active, participating character itself, bursting with joy and life.

Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Tristan Turner. Photo by Paul Lester/SCR.

Luckily, every so often, Delgado treats the audience to some exquisitely-rendered vocal moments backed by an amazing band that includes band leader and musical director Roberto "Carpacho" Marin on hella-cool upright bass, Nestor Gonzalez and Jorge Ordiano on percussion, Carlos Ordiano on keyboards, and Carol Macpherson on trombone, who deservedly gets a spotlight solo that had the audience wowing.

But, as expected, some of the stories are much more intriguing than others, especially when they are all similarly told to the audience as long extended monologues, one right after another, with not much of a transition in between them, aside from the occasional musical interstitial from the awesome on-stage band.

Rather than witness each story be actively dramatized and brought to life by the production's admirable eight-member acting troupe, the play's stories are simply spoken to the audience in disconnected succession. This format---more TED Talk than dramatic play---just makes it difficult to really be absorbed in or be moved by these characters' stories, however compelling or funny or emotional they may sound… or even how well each actor relays them.

Though, to be fair, each actor is indeed superb in their respective speeches. The show's talented ensemble features Maria Jimena Gastelum as bubbly, dreamy-eyed teen Maria; Eduardo Enrikez and Marlene Martinez as adorable betrothed couple Henry and Maruja; Luis Herrera as fiery photographer/activist Carlos, Roberto Antonio Martin as stalwart and ambitious Tony, the eventual new owner of La Havana Madrid, whose monetary success still doesn't shield him from institutional racism; the remarkable Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as hairstylist/pageant queen Myrna, whose vividly engrossing testimony straddles the line between triumphant and tragic; and, finally, the splendid Tristan Turner as musically-inclined Carpacho---perhaps the fictional younger persona of the real Carpacho behind the band's upright bass?

Though part of me wishes the entire show was more immersive---in that the audience were seated as if we were patrons of the nightclub and all the musical performances and stories occur all around us---the play still incorporates a few entrancing visual components, from Carolyn Mazuca's colorful period costumes and Efren Delgadillo Jr's scenic contributions, to Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's terrific lighting work. And this being a show infused with Latin rhythms that range from salsa to tango, it goes without saying that choreographer Jonny Martinez's work here is quite impressive when paired with the amazing sounds from the band.

Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Luis Herrera, Sandra Delgado and Roberto Antonio Martin.
Photo by Paul Lester/SCR

Though I must disclose that I did miss experiencing the first 10-12 minutes of the show (my companion and I spent more than a half-hour just circling endlessly nearby to find any parking), I feel I got the complete gist of what the play is trying to convey right away---or, more to the point, what its sorely missing to be an even more absorbing theatrical experience.

Honestly, this could easily be revamped as a full-on musical, with its stories sung out rather than merely monologued out. If music, as the play repeatedly expresses, was such a unifying force for every immigrant that stepped through its nightclub's doors, then LA HAVANA MADRID could follow its heart and lean more into its pre-built, pre-destined musicality. Or, if wanting/needing to remain a straight play, I think audiences---especially those who light up seeing their faces represented amongst its Latinx characters---would truly appreciate seeing the stories come to life rather than just hearing about it second-hand.

Being a play that is, at the present time, much more about telling than actually showing, LA HAVANA MADRID is, in a way, somewhat hindered by its own machinations from becoming a much more compelling theatrical experience than what its plot summary promises. Hopefully its terrifically talented author would take a cue from her own dramatic titular alter ego and let the music help carry its messages of love and aspiration forward.

Review: South Coast Repertory Brings LA HAVANA MADRID to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel and Roberto Antonio Martin.
Photo by Paul Lester/SCR

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ *


Photos by Paul Lester for South Coast Repertory.

Performances of South Coast Repertory's Outside SCR presentation of Sandra Delgado's LA HAVANA MADRID continue at the Mission San Juan Capistrano through August 4, 2023. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Mission San Juan Capistrano is located at 26801 Old Mission Road in San Juan Capistrano.



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