Review: ‘The Mambo Kings’

The raw ingredients for a crossover crowd-pleaser are present in new tuner "The Mambo Kings," adapted from Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer-winning 1989 novel. But this advertised "hot new musical" at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater is currently just lukewarm -- an uneven, sometimes tepid package more middling than sizzling.

The raw ingredients for a crossover crowd-pleaser are present in new tuner “The Mambo Kings,” adapted from Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer-winning 1989 novel. But this advertised “hot new musical” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater is currently just lukewarm — an uneven, sometimes tepid package more middling than sizzling. To meet the show’s rich potential by the time of its planned August launch on Broadway, creatives need to rein in sentimental song and story elements that, at present, are too blandly highlighted, while kicking up a notch lead perfs, pacing and design contributions.

The careening, balladlike passion of the book made it seem natural dramatic material. As the 1992 film version demonstrated, however, Hijuelos’ intoxicating prose can elude capture. His strength is stylistic rather than narrative, concentrated in an extravagant, lusty, pop-anecdote-laden evocation of a unique time and milieu. Arne Glimcher’s movie was delightful so long as it focused on pure heady atmosphere, degenerating as the rotely melodramatic plot took precedence.

Scripted by Hijuelos and Glimcher, with music by Carlos Franzetti (who contributed pic’s limited original score material), the stage version aims to juggle hothouse sensuousness with serious storytelling. Right now, the wrong side is winning.

This literal-minded “Mambo Kings” should perhaps take a leaf from some “Cabaret” stagings and stay within the nightclub. The fraternal and romantic torments would work better if their artificiality were heightened. Attempts at psychological naturalism only drag this party down.

Curtain rises on mambo matriarch and occasional narrator Evalina (vet Cuban singer Albita) speaking a brief intro that sounds unironically like a 1950s travelogue (“Our story begins in beautiful Havana, capital of romantic dreams”). This segues into a song (“Theater of Dreams”) that’s too contempo-Broadway despite its token Latin beat — a complaint applicable to much of Franzetti’s score.

After a routine nightclub dance number starring leggy Maria (Natalia Zisa), we meet Cesar Castillo (Esai Morales) as he tries to find out why she threw over his heartbroken little brother Nestor (Jaime Camil). A possessive gangster type (Allen Hidalgo) explains, using his minions’ fists for emphasis. He also promises Nestor will be a dead man if he sees Maria again. Cesar convinces Nestor they must flee, without revealing the reason.

They’re soon on the doorstep of cousins in 1952 Manhattan, which endlessly ambitious Cesar expects to conquer forthwith. Taken to top nightspot the Palladium — in a sequence that allows choreographer Sergio Trujillo and ensemble their first chance to shine — duo recruit new bandmates and gauge their competition.

But Cesar’s hubris makes a fast enemy of promoter Perez (David Alan Grier), who “owns all the musicians in this town.” Refusing to be “owned,” Cesar ensures he and songwriter-trumpeter-lead singer Nestor remain waiters for some time.

Meanwhile, Cesar acquires a piece of the American Dream in statuesque platinum blond cigarette girl Vanna (Christiane Noll, channeling Judy Holliday nicely). Nestor pursues fellow Cuban emigre Dolores (Cote de Pablo), a “nice girl” whose sassy elder sis Ana Maria (Justina Machado) is courted to more comic ends by wannabe-Latin Jewish trombonist Benny (Dennis Staroselsky).

However, Dolores realizes Nestor hasn’t gotten over the ephemeral Maria — a key yearning this staging conveys only in dialogue references.

Act two opens with a mambo contest attracting attention from Desi Arnaz (an uninspired Hidalgo), who lures the brothers to Hollywood for an “I Love Lucy” guest spot, which the musical (like film before it) amusingly intercuts with original B&W series excerpts.

At this career peak, the brothers suffer a rift that proves tragic. As haltingly directed by Glimcher, post-intermission progress jerks between periodic club-dance reheatings and too many drippy solo numbers advancing a self-sacrificial soap operaticism whose character motivations are scarcely believable.

The tropical color intensity of lighting schemata triumphs over paltry set design. Its background left mostly empty black (a scrim frequently cloaking orchestra on wraparound stage balcony), the show too often seems underpopulated and underdressed.

Though dance corps and most support players are just fine, lead thesps aren’t yet sparking on all cylinders. Stage, film and TV vet Morales lacks the juicy swagger and operatic self-love Armand Assante essayed beautifully in the film. Unable to punch across on sheer force of personality, Morales’ shaky vocal instrument lies exposed and undefended.

Handsome young Mexican multimedia magnate Camil, a big plus in the show’s pitch toward Latino auds, is better cast but suffers from a score whose cheesier p’operetta elements too often call on his unreliable lower register (in service of Glimcher’s more banal lyrics) rather than the silky high-crooner range that duly flutters hearts.

He manages the latter in “Beautiful Maria of My Heart,” the Castillo brothers’ “hit” melody, which seemed contempo-adult schlocky in the movie alongside standards by Duke Ellington and others but here comes off as a flavorful lament — if only because so much else in Franzetti’s score seems anxious to meet today’s vanilla Broadway showtunery more than halfway, the composer’s Latin pop background be damned.

Sporting a true musical-theater soprano, de Pablo’s Dolores reps a traditional ingenue so “pure” she’d be more credible as a WASP collegian doing barrio “research” than as an actual inhabitant. It’s wholly unconvincing that she might eventually beguile cynical Cesar as well as puppyish Nestor. Much more successful within one-dimensional character limits is Noll, whose Broadway-baby brass and pathos as the perennial not-so-dumb-blond with a heart of gold lends her show-stopping spotlights (notably the “Another Suitcase”-like “Alone in the Dark”) a heft and pathos that quite tips storytelling emphasis.

Half narrative participant, half “Spider Woman”-ish mythic glamazon, Albita seems uneasy with her role’s admittedly awkward function. Grier, who replaced Billy Dee Williams during rehearsals, is barely used until a mediocre music-biz-as-Mephistopheles number (“Sign! Sign! Sign!”) that does his insufficiently sinister turn no favors.

The Mambo Kings

Golden Gate Theater, San Francisco; 2,400 seats; $85 top

Production

A Daryl Roth, Jordan Roth, True Love Prods. presentation in association with Clear Channel Entertainment of a musical in two acts with music by Carlos Franzetti, lyrics by Arne Glimcher, book by Oscar Hijuelos and Glimcher, based on the novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" by Hijuelos. Directed by Glimcher. Musical direction, vocal arrangements, Constantine Kitsopoulos. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo.

Creative

Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer; sound design, Acme Sound Partners; orchestrations, Franzetti; music coordinator, John Miller; wig and hair design, David Brian Brown; production stage manager, C. Randall White. Opened, reviewed May 31, 2005. Runs through June 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Cesar Castillo - Esai Morales Nestor Castillo - Jaime Camil Perez - David Alan Grier Evalina Montoya - Albita Ana Maria Fuentes - Justina Machado Dolores Fuentes - Cote de Pablo Vanna Vane - Christiane Noll Bendadito Mandlebaum - Dennis Staroselsky Emcee et al. - Allen Hidalgo Pablo - Robert Montano Blanca - Monica Salazar Mrs. Shannon - Kay Wallbye Maria - Natalia Zisa
With: Warren Adams, Inesol Cardona, Natalie Cortez, Joey Dowling, Michael Fielder, Tony Falcon, James Harkness, Ivan Hernandez, Ruthie Inchautegui, Michelle Marmolejo, Liz Ramos, Raymond Rodriguez, Luis Salgado, Marcos Santana, Jeffrey Schecter, Carlos Sierra-Lopez, Maria Torres, Cathy Trien.

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