La Havana Madrid, a 1960s Latino nightclub on the corner of Belmont and Sheffield, has been resurrected for five weeks by Chicago’s Teatro Vista. Columbian-American actress Sandra Delgado wrote and stars in this collection of musical monologues telling the stories of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants to Chicago. The namesake nightclub plays backdrop, a unifying source of comfort in each character’s life. Delgado leads the ensemble as a mystical cabaret singer whose stirring song calls the characters to divulge their immigrant experiences. Behind her is Carpacho y Su Super Combo. Columbian-born Roberto “Carpacho” Marin has been playing with his band in Chicago for 30 years. They perform a full range of Latino music including mambo and salsa. Marin’s story is told in one of the monologues, his younger self played by Marvin Quijada. Quijada’s Carpacho is animated and humorous. Quijada uses his body to emphasize the comic nature of Carpacho’s experiences, like hiding from ICE officers by clinging to a factory conveyor belt as if he was a coat on a rack.
There were six stories in total, each played with campy humor. Donovan Diaz’s portrayal of Carlos, a teen living amongst and contributing to ethnic and sectional violence, felt the most compelling because his character didn’t brush past or joke about the situation in which he lived–the city’s displacing his neighborhood, ethnic and racial violence reinforced by limited space and neighborhood boundaries. Carlos Flores is a black Puerto Rican community leader and photographer. The photos that Carlos snaps on stage belong to the real-life Carlos Flores. This exemplifies the ambitious idea behind La Havana Madrid: an oral history project. Each character is a real person– one stands on stage playing with his band, another’s photos are flashed on screens beside the stage. But this history project was smooshed together with a cabaret musical. That’s not necessarily a poor decision but it felt like the emotional heart of each tale was glazed over as a consequence. Tough topics like police brutality, immigration’s separating families, gentrification and displacement were mentioned, but the book didn’t possess the emotional bandwidth to deal with them. La Havana Madrid was a place for laughing, dancing, escapism, so maybe the script’s inability to dig into the social injustices and personal hardships it brings up is completely appropriate.
For a cabaret musical, La Havana Madrid doesn’t disappoint. Upon entering Steppenwolf’s 1700 theater, you feel as though you are placed in a nightclub under the sea. The stage is outlined in a frame of bubbles, Sandra Delgado’s cabaret singer wears a glittery dress like a mermaid. The first monologue in the script, Krystal Ortiz playing Cuban adolescent Maria, mentions the importance of the lake– a reminder of her homeland, and a source of solace for her. Bodies of water are life sustaining, harbors are city sustaining, and similarly La Havana Madrid connects and sustains each character. Tying the lake to the nightclub is a strong point in Delgado’s book, and it’s carried out well by scenic designer Ashley Ann Woods and costume designer Elsa Hiltner. Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s direction has characters using the space wonderfully, and interacting with the audience on the dance floor. Actors hit their notes with humor, dance and spanglish sing-song. The production has a pervasive energy and magic to it.
La Havana Madrid is a fun, high spirited, interactive show. However, as a history project it felt a bit like a tease. A nightclub is not the best backdrop for unpacking one’s hardship and immigration story, but it is a fine place for listening to salsa. It doesn’t seem appropriate to be disappointed by this production, so I suggest going to it with a salsa first, immigration narrative second, mindset.
La Havana Madrid runs at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 N. Halsted St., until May 28. Tickets are $40 each. The show will run at the Miracle Center in Logan Square, 2311 N. Pulaski Rd., June 2-11.