Viva Celia!

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No matter how well-done the production, or how intriguing the plot, sometimes when actors break out into song and dance at haphazard moments in a play, I can’t help but cringe in my seat. In Celia: The Life & Music of Celia Cruz at New World Stages, however, the musical components of this production gave me the sensation of watching the real Celia Cruz perform live. Music for this play was appropriate. It made sense, because the essence of Celia Cruz was music. With three Grammy awards and four Latin Grammys, she was known throughout the world as the “Queen of Salsa” and “La Guarachera de Cuba.” Maybe it was because the scenes were based on memories from her late husband, Pedro Knight, or maybe it was because the woman who plays her, Xiomara Laugart, is another world-renowned Cuban vocalist, but though it’s been more than four years since her death, everything about this musical emanated Cruz’ energy.

After the robust opening song, “Toro Mata” (an Afro-Peruvian folk song which Cruz popularized outside of Peru with her salsa rendition), Modesto Lacén appeared on the stage, bearing a striking resemblance to Celia’s husband of 41 years. In a dark suit and white sideburns, he played an integral role in the performance. It’s just like Celia would’ve wanted it, as he reminisced with quivering hands and a feeble voice about how she always wanted to introduce him to the public. His memories took us on a chronological journey through the beginning of her fame in Cuba with the group Sonora Matancera, where they met, through her differences with Fidel Castro who banned her, and her music, from Cuba – finally forcing them to leave their beloved homeland. At 35, Cruz moved to New York where she began her solo career including collaborations with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and the Fania All Stars.

Written by Carmen Rivera and Candido Tirado, directed by Jaime Azpilicueta and produced by Daddy Yankee, the production was better than I could have hoped for. It was indeed a celebration of her life and music. It was a love story primarily between Celia and her husband, but also of her fans, her Cuba, and her dream. The scenic design was simple and elegant, the costumes precise, and the seven-person band perfected the memorial tribute to the cherished singer by playing some of her top hits such as, “Quimbara,” “Cúcula,” and “La Negra Tiene Tumba’o.”

Sunilda Caraballo, who has made appearances in El Repertorio Español and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, played the role of Celia when she wasn’t singing. She did a competent job reenacting Cruz’ physical mannerisms, but Laugart gave the character her soul – la música. In 2003, Laugart was nominated for a Grammy for President Alien (Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album) as the then lead singer of the funky bilingual collective Yerba Buena, headed by Andrés Levín. Last year, she released her first solo project entitled Xiomara.

Both Cruz and Laugart began their singing careers in Cuba in their early teens. They both traveled the world sharing their unforgettable voices and deep laugh. However, no matter how talented they both are as vocalists, Laugart proved that no matter how excellent she can sing, and she was excellent – no one can take the place of Celia Cruz. Even though she successfully captured the spirit of her songs, as she made the crowd clap and sing along at the edges of their seats, I couldn’t help but notice Cruz’s gargantuan smile missing as Laugart exited the stage after an emotive finale of “La Vida es Carnival.”

Cruz was only able to return to Cuba once more after her extradition, for a performance at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay which Laugart reenacted during the show. When Cruz died from brain cancer at the age of 77 in 2003, her longtime wish was granted and she was buried with Cuban soil which she had saved from that last trip.

But we are reminded not to be sad, as we’re fighting back tears and getting up from our chairs to clap and dance to “No hay que llorar…las penas se van cantando...” It’s just as she would’ve wanted it – even down to the tropical tasting sangria being sold at the concession stand. Azucar!

“Celia” is performed in Spanish except at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Songs are performed in Spanish at all performances.