Review: Vamos Cuba! - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 26 July - 21 August 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 29 July 2016

Vamos Cuba! Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a touch of Spielberg’s The Terminal about Vamos Cuba! Although this approximation of Havana airport hosts a dozen Cubans awaiting a delayed flight to Miami and not the stateless Tom Hanks eking out an existence on free pouches of peanuts and tomato ketchup!

Vamos Cuba! (roughly translated as “Let’s Go, Cuba”) is the long-anticipated follow-up to Nilda Guerra’s Havana Rakatan, a show that began as a super-successful summer ‘filler’ at The Peacock in 2007 and returning for several more seasons as a co-production with Sadler’s Wells. Unsurprisingly, Vamos Cuba! perpetuates that tried-and-tested recipe of hi-energy song-and-dance, taking the audience through the diverse musical history of Cuba, from the folklore of the Orishas; through mambo, rumba and much more besides; ending up with the repetitive beat of reggaetón – a hip hop musical style, recently born in Puerto Rico.

The pretext for this historical tour is that delayed flight to Miami and a flip through the lives of the stranded passengers and sundry airline and airport staff. A photographer provides an opportunity for a nostalgic trawl through pre-revolutionary Havana as his photos are revealed on a large screen (as if postcards in an album, complete with gummed corners), portraying the grandeur of Old Havana that leads to a fantasy scene in a glamorous ‘50s night club. Emblematic photos of Castro and Guevara bring us through the revolutionary era to the recent diplomatic thaw that now allows a direct flight from Havana to Miami.

Transitions from scene-to-scene lack clarity and the subliminal narrative intentions are lost in the melee. Act One closes with the Miami flight indefinitely delayed but act two opens on board a plane during a hair-raising, turbulent take-off (not a scene to be seen by nervous flyers) and then we’re immediately back in the airport. An unseen cockroach, apparently the size of “a Chihuahua”, jumps out of a suitcase and causes havoc before the airport is apparently taken over by a centuries-old tribal dance. In amongst all of this, small stories play out amongst the group, including a fading affair between the pilot (Ranses Charón) and an air hostess (Daymeris Sanchez) set against a love-at-first-sight story for the airport porter (Yoanis Pelaez) and a feisty young blonde woman (Ana Aylén Salazar). Comical tannoy announcements keep the momentum flowing but not enough to remove the unintended narrative disguise; many of the storylines are so subliminal as to pass by unnoticed (apparently these cameos included a “duty-bound young doctor” and a failing actress and her loyal assistant, neither of which registered with me at all).

When the party eventually arrived in Miami their first stop must have been the laundry since it appears that they wore all their clothes at the airport given the many costume changes from scene-to-scene. Glitz, sparkle and tight-tight-fit characterised the dress code. An early number for seven sexy air hostesses in matching pink uniforms and wheeled-suitcases set the scene for the torrent of glamour to come. Adam Wiltshire’s opening set design bathed the stage in the colours of the Cuban flag in a huge draped fabric that suddenly dropped after the second scene to reveal the airport lounge and its departures board.

The quality of choreography plays second fiddle to the music throughout Vamos Cuba! This is a great musical show with few dance highlights, one of which came in an enthusiastic ensemble finale with the fourteen dancers making intricate patterns of unified movement and for once their hip action came to the fore. Until then, the dance was largely disappointing, perhaps constrained by the number of bodies on a restricted stage space; but, as my Latin American companion said, one could see much more exotic dancing at Salsa or any of the many Latin-themed clubs in the West End on any night of the week.

The eclectic music, however, was exceptional and superbly delivered by a small band of nine musicians seated on two raised, on-stage platforms (one group hidden behind the departures board). The band is led by the musical director and trumpeter, Julito Padrón, who also composed new music for the show; and it is fronted by two excellent singers. Geidy Chapman has been with these London shows since the premiere of Havana Rakatan (as has the dancer, Yoanis Pelaez) and she is joined by Grammy-nominated Latin-Jazz singer, Maikel Ante. Their solo songs were the highlights.

Looking back at my review of the 2007 premiere of Havana Rakatan, I wrote then that the audience had scant regard for normal theatrical conventions and, once again, sitting towards the rear of the First Circle was rather like being in Piccadilly Circus (or perhaps more appropriately on El Malecon, the 10km esplanade running along the coast from Old Havana) given the number of people that blithely walked around during the show. One chap left his seat midway through a number and shone a torch through the auditorium to find his way out. The man in front stood up and changed his seat several times through both acts, ending up in the same seat from where he started. Heaven knows why Sadler’s Wells bothered with an interval since most of its patrons seemed happy enough to choose their own and the return from the bars for Act Two was just as randomly observed as the start time (people were still filing in during scene four). I don’t mind people having fun at the theatre; I just mind them spoiling mine.

Havana Rakatan first came to the attention of Sadler’s Wells director, Alistair Spalding, when a ‘cold-call’ DVD hit his desk. From that inauspicious beginning has blossomed a firm and fruitful partnership that has enlivened many of the last ten London summers. I recall that Havana Rakatan went through several iterations of being tightened up and Vamos Cuba! also needs a rethink in terms of its overall structure, narrative clarity and the quality of choreography (I think it would benefit from enlarging the dance space or reducing the number of dancers), but – all this said – it still looks like being another sure-fire popular success.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 21 August

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Johan Persson

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