BWW Review: Double Bill ZARZUELAS by The In Series Misses the Mark
No matter the work, it is important to leave a theater feeling some sort of emotion. Any emotion will do, just as long as you were able to feel for the performance happening in front of you. Unfortunately, the double bill of zarzuelas produced by The In Series that opened Sunday night (playing at GALA Hispanic Theater) left minimal impact on the audience. Zarzuelas, or short Cuban operettas, take the operatic form and infuse it with the sounds of Cuba. The music throughout the evening is beautiful but almost none of the performances are nearly as beautiful or compelling as their source material.
It is no coincidence that both works are based on the same novel, Cecelia Valdés. From what was seen on stage, the book in question is packed with vital commentary about race, culture, and colonialism in Cuba. Few of these themes translate into the staged versions as presented. The first operetta titled after the novel itself, is a period piece that stays loyalty to the source material. A man must choose between his two loves: one a biracial woman whom he is deeply attracted to and the other a wealthy white countess who will guarantee him years of prosperity. The second Zarzuela, María La O, takes this love triangle plot and transplants it to a 1930s Cuban nightclub. Once again, a man must choose between his love of the beautiful biracial singer, Maria La O, or the wealthy Tula Smith who has promised to cast him in her upcoming motion picture. His choice remains the same in each zarzuela which creates a strange sense of déjà vu when the works are presented back-to-back.
Cecelia Valdés is definitely the weaker of the two productions, which makes its placement at the top of the program much more difficult. The plot ambles along at a too-slow pace and too many events which feel important either come out of nowhere or are not addressed later. María La O is a stronger entry but is tonally unclear. During the climax, for instance, the dramatic events onstage elicited laughter from the audience. If the ensemble were more direct with their actions, the tone would be more clear.
The entire company have beautiful voices. Each of the leading ladies (Fairouz Foty as Cecilia and Anamer Castrello as María) are incredibly strong vocalists. In fact, the music is consistently good throughout the night. Carlos César Rodríguez does an excellent job as both Music Director and Pianist. As the only other accompanist, Iván Navas dutifully provides percussion to better texture the musical numbers. With only two players, it's surprising just how full the accompaniment sounds.
If the evening had been a concert, I would have been thoroughly impressed. But alas, each zarzuela is fully staged and neither manages to reveal any additional layers to their works beyond "that song is pretty." Unfortunately, full productions require performers who can act and dance in addition to sing. From what was demonstrated Sunday night, only one or two performers are able to do all three at even a passable level.
When it comes to acting, Cara Gonzalez (Isabel and Tula) is the only member from either company to deliver lines with any sort of realism. At best, the other performers feel like they are reciting a script. At worst, the ensemble plows through their lines with such speed and minimal volume that their discomfort with spoken, rather than sung, dialogue becomes increasingly apparent. Overall, the scenes (which feel overly long) become a dreaded point of the evening. It would have been smarter to keep the evening sung through and play to the company's strong suits.
Speaking of the dialogue, it was odd to have English dialogue with Spanish songs. These works should be a celebration of Cuba and Cuban culture. While an English libretto fits with María La O, the choice to make the words English for Cecelia Valdés is a confusing one. If supertitles can be used for music, why not for dialogue? Such a shift could have easily helped reduce the awkwardness of the script and perhaps lended a more natural feel to these music-less moments.
While dancing, the company falls victim to a detriment which hits almost every middle and high school choir. Once movement is added, the vocals are given half the attention they were before. Musical numbers where more movement occurred were noticeably quieter than when the cast was more sedentary. Rule number one of any musical: if movement threatens the integrity of the work, reduce the dancing as much as possible. Even the simplest of steps, however, often trips up many members of this ensemble.
Abel López and Jaime Coronado do a decent job with directing the performance. Too often, however, it feels like the directors were uncomfortable letting their actors stand still for more than a moment. Giving them an opportunity to plant themselves and sing would have been a better way to accentuate the best parts of this production (the music).
There is undoubtedly a lot of talent on the stage of GALA Hispanic Theatre. For a variety of reasons, this talent is never able to emphasize the importance of these zarzuelas. Thankfully, the voices are strong enough to let the beautiful scores shine. If only the same could be said for the other aspects of this show.
María and Cecilia: Zarzuela a la Cubana runs approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Produced by The In Series, performances are held at GALA Hispanic Theatre (3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20010) through April 29, 2018. For tickets, call (202) 204-7763 or click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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