Marga Gomez Lights Up the Night with LATIN STANDARDS Now Thru Nov. 18
In her solo show Latin Standards, comedian Marga Gomez gives us the story of her famous, if largely unremembered father, a Cuban-born entertainer who immigrated to New York and became a sensation in the Latin nightclub scene of the 50s and 60s.
Taking the improbable stage name Willy Chevalier, the charming and dapper performer razzle-dazzled his largely Latinx, working-class audiences with his comedy and stage routines each weekend, his unique brand of comedy helping to ease lives that were a never-ending saga of hardship and exploitation. That sounds dour and downright depressing for a comedy show, but in Gomez's skillful hands, it is anything but.
She easily traverses the terrain between laughter and pain, past and present, inviting her audience to laugh and cry as the mood takes them. Delving into the past, she takes on the persona of her father (glitzy show jacket and all) creating comical vignettes of what life was like with him. We quickly learn how to answer a phone to make would-be hiring agents think you have plenty of work and that Chevalier's friend and fellow entertainer Bobby Sylvio stole his jokes. And if we didn't know before, we learn that Café Bustelo is THE BEST coffee ever! (That will come into play later on in the show.)
We also see that Chevalier lived with a singular passion for entertaining, keeping his desires alive with an unflagging and effervescent hope. Even as his career and his style of entertaining began to fade, his show-biz survival instincts, combined with hope, allowed him to excel in songwriting, producing many hits on the Latin Billboard Charts for other performers.
It's Chevalier's "Latin Standards" that provide the conceptual underpinnings of Gomez's show. She introduces her audience to some of the hit songs that propelled Chevalier's career forward. (One song even went on to become elevator Musak!) With swift humor and uncanny insight into her father's nature, we laugh as she shares, not the actual songs but the intros to said songs. As she puts it, "My concert is for real music lovers who never want the song introduction to end; who are passionate and curious about the backstory minutia and fun facts." The audience eats it up.
Woven into the fabric of her dad's fantastical past, is the stuff of the recent past and her own struggles to produce a comedy night at the Latinx drag club, Esta Noche in San Francisco's Mission district. This time she's Manuel, the nightclub owner with no money and a secret; then she becomes her own girlfriend of the time who's into fashion and whiteness - err, wellness. She calls her Gwyneth.
Through the magic of Marga we're right there with her in that sleazy bar with the posters of bare-chested hombres and the smell of urinal cakes. (Okay, maybe not the actual smell, but you get the idea.) Throughout the show, David Schweizer's direction is intuitive and nuanced. Hector Zavala's lighting design creates ambiance and takes us into clubs, New York apartments and agency offices.
Undaunted by the bleakness and grim outlook for her comedy show, it's clear to the audience that Chevalier's daughter is just as single-minded of purpose and passion as he was. She is determined to succeed. And if one club closes, there's always be another one, right? We already know the answer to that question because we're sitting in the Marsh in Berkeley watching her perform before our very eyes and she is on fire bringing her father's story to comedic life.
In his story and hers, it's clear that their Latin standard has been to keep going, to persevere and to reinvent themselves if necessary again and again on behalf of the dream. Ultimately that standard is the same for all immigrants coming to this country: work hard and scramble to make a better life for yourself and your family. That's the Latin standard...and it too is filled with an effervescent hope that helps them to make it through the tough times with laughter and grace.
Latin Standards is a belly-laugh funny and loving, side-by-side tale of Willy Chevalier and what he did for laughs and love - and about Marga Gomez - the daughter who followed in his comedic footsteps. It would make him smile to know that through her work he will now be forever remembered. His life story would make a great movie and I'm just going to go ahead and say it - I think Lin-Manuel Miranda would be perfect as the great Willy Chevalier.
The Marsh Theatre in Berkeley
Now through November 18
Written and Performed by Marga Gomez
Directed by David Schweizer
Lighting Design by Hector Zaval
Light and Soundboard Operation by Aaron Aguilar
Tickets: $25 - $35 sliding scale | $55 and $100 Reserved Seating
BENEFIT NIGHT: November 18
Fridays at 8pm | Saturdays at 8:30pm
85 minutes | No Intermission | Ages 16+ | Please do not bring infants to the show
Photo courtesy of Fabian Echevaria