Susan Stroman's Lincoln Center production of Girl in a Yellow Dress followed by Twyla Tharp's Broadway hit Movin' Out probably ushered in the popular dance genre that might now be called the dance-thru musical. Like the juke-box musicals so popular of late, they encompass interpolated music from various composers along with a compelling story line. Girl in a Yellow Dress hangs its story line on a very simple premise; a man is depressed by a life that is totally devoid of fulfillment to the point that he contemplates suicide - until he frequents a neighborhood bar wherein he meets a beautiful woman in a yellow dress and his life is turned around.
The story behind VIDA!, the world premiere of which occurred recently in Toronto as part of the city's Luminato Festival, has deeper roots. It is the story of one woman named Vida (life) who grows up in old Havana spanning a period beginning in the 1930s through to the present. The cross-cultural team of Lizt Alfonso, Kelly Robinson, Diana Fernandez, Yadira Hernandez and musical composer Denis Peralta (with a ten member Afro-jazz orchestra) has invented a breathtaking spectacle that has been hailed by the critics and cheered (and cheered) by the multicultural audience flocking to the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Undoubtedly the strength of the piece springs from (besides the creative drivers who steered it to the stage) the raison d'etre for the company itself. Lizt Alfonso Danza Cuba is an all women dance troupe that goes beyond the traditional folklorico to expound a mixture of influences that includes ballet, flamenco, Afro-Cuban, jazz, modern and Cuban-rooted social dances such as the rumba and mambo. More important, it gives the dance an object and purpose that goes beyond the revelation of beautiful forms in graceful attitudes and the development of a line agreeable to the eye. It is a story imbued with emotion, passion and social dynamic.
The guiding presence of the performance is "the older" Vida played by the incomparable Omara Portuondo, one of the stars of Ry Cooder's documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club. She narrates the story to her granddaughter Alma (the effervescent Yaraidy Fernandez). One technical misstep (in my opinion) had Portuondo speaking her lines in Spanish but being drowned out by an English translation through the house sound system. She quickly gave up trying to act the lines and capitulated to the fact that her voice would be heard only when she sang. Better to have had the dialog translated by way of printed supertitles than to drown out the star.
But the heavy lifting in this show is carried by the 25 dancers who segue effortlessly from one dance form to the next. Stand-outs include Yudisley Martinez as the romantic ingenue who falls in love with the single male dancer in the show, Vadim Larramendi. And Maysabel Pintado who plays the menacing figure of Muerte (death) often costumed as a militarist.
The set and costume design by Yannik Larivee evoked old Havana with nostalgia as well as elegance. The confusing scene that portrays the outbreak of the Cuban revolution in 1959 in which red handbills fall to the stage underscored by music in a deep minor mode gives one pause to ask if this was a signal of liberation or liability. Such is often the case when politics and art rub shoulders side by side.