When a critic devotes more than a sentence to describing a show's lighting effects it's usually a bad sign. Reviewers -- often erroneously, I believe -- tend to write about elements like light and sound only when they can't muster the enthusiasm to talk about "weightier" matters such as writing, directing, and performance. (In reality, skillful lighting and sound effects can escape notice, like brilliantly composed film scores.) But the intoxicating display of luminescence that lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have produced in The Mambo Kings conveys the passion and energy embodied by the 1950s Latin music scene where the play's other elements -- most conspicuously the script -- fail.
Based on Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize- winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (as well as the 1992 movie starring Antonio Banderas), the musical tells the story of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who set sail from their native Cuba to seek their fortunes in New York City's burgeoning mambo scene. Unlike the novel, which focuses predominantly on the long and torturously slow demise of the siblings after a brief burst of success (thanks in part to a one-off appearance as guests on I Love Lucy), the play steers clear of many of the original's more troubling elements. There's no hint, for example, of elder brother Cesar's increasingly debilitating drinking habit or weight problem, and -- besides a couple of references to Nestor's writing 27 different versions of his celebrated love ballad "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" -- little to suggest the younger Castillo's dangerously obsessive personality.
As portrayed by Esai Morales and Jaime Camil, respectively, Cesar and Nestor seem more like a couple of lovable playboys than deeply tortured souls. And while the novel derives a great deal of its power from the contrast between the two characters, the musical version seems to flatten the differences. Cesar is described near the start of the show as having "a wandering heart," while his brother's is "a heart that's too big and too sweet," but both characters more or less move to the beat of the same bongo; as gentle cads with silky voices and a predilection for skirt, they're practically indistinguishable.
I don't want to belabor the comparison between Hijuelos' utterly captivating original and this latest -- and in its own way fabulous -- reincarnation of the story. For even though musicals like Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change resoundingly refute the notion that intelligent characterization, seamless storytelling, and musical theater don't mix, the 400-plus pages of Hijuelos' novel lend themselves much more readily to the slow burn and complex psychologies of the protagonists than 2 1/2 hours' truck with the musical stage. Hijuelos and co-author/director Arne Glimcher (who also directed the movie version of the book) instead concentrate on evoking the infectious rhythms of Latin music and the delirious passions of the times, when people of multiple ethnicities and backgrounds flocked to the dance clubs to soak up the sounds of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Pérez Prado.
As in an action flick in which every scene is an excuse for a good fight, The Mambo Kings is all about the pulse of the music and the sway of the hips. It's not for nothing that the orchestra -- featuring traditional Latin percussion and jazz brass as well as instruments more closely associated with classical music (cello, oboe) -- sits in full view above the stage on a balcony rather than secluded in the conventional pit. Accordingly, two of the longest and most engaging parts of the show are based around characters proving their rhythmic prowess. In one slickly directed scene, the Castillo brothers and their newly formed musical ensemble slug it out with another group in a "Battle of the Bands" tournament; in another, the audience is treated to a live mambo contest in which couples dressed in Ann Roth's elegantly tailored duds shimmy and shake about the stage. The cast and musicians expertly execute Carlos Franzetti's driving score and Sergio Trujillo's sensual choreography. Gyrating with a precision that combines violence with sweetness within Riccardo Hernandez's roomy set, the multidexterous performers demonstrate a flawlessness that belies the laid-back, jubilant mood.
While the production is undoubtedly loud, it's also rather subtle. Camil and Morales possess sleek, understated singing voices, refreshingly free of that irritating neck vibrato so ubiquitous to musical theater. Camil's rendition of "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" is especially haunting. From the moonlight casting deep shadows on the faces of the musicians as they exit a New York club after a long night of playing to the Hotel Splendor's red neon sign, which looks especially seedy thanks to a spluttering "t," the lighting provides The Mambo Kings with a crowning whiff of smoky sexuality. Ultimately, the essence of the show resides more convincingly in the suggestive unfurling of a silk stockinged leg and the sway of the cha-cha than in the poor script, with its embarrassingly puerile lines and clodhopping plot.