Celia Cruz heats up the stage again

December 23, 2007

nydailynews.com

Celia Cruz heats up the stage again

BY MICHAEL GILTZ

Legendary salsa singer Celia Cruz conquered Cuba, the rest of Latin America and finally the world. So it’s no surprise that, “Celia,” an Off-Broadway musical about her life, would turn into a hit.

Bursting with more than 30 classic Cruz numbers like “Bemba Colora” and “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” the show that opened in September at the New World Theater (230 W. 49th St., at Eighth Ave.) just placed a block of tickets on sale for performances through the end of January, is eying yet another three-month extension and is making plans to record a cast album and launch a tour.

“I never thought it would be open for so long,” says Xiomara Laugart, who belts out Cruz’s songs. “It’s really difficult to impersonate Celia Cruz, because she’s an icon and everybody knows her.”

The show is framed as the memories of her life-long love, musician Pedro Knight (Modesto Lacen), told to a nurse (Pedro Capo). “Celia” charts Cruz’s life from her childhood and early forays on the radio to her departure from Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power, her pairing with Tito Puente and her rise to iconic status. (Cruz died in 2003 at age 77.)

Like “Jersey Girl,” “Mamma Mia!” and numerous other musicals, it’s a genial excuse to perform some of the most exciting, contagious music ever made. And along with the music comes an endless parade of costume changes for Laugart, complete with wild wigs in every color of the rainbow.

“Oh, my God. I never counted the costume changes,” laughs Laugart, “because if I did, I’d get nuts! The easy part is to enjoy it, and that’s it.”

For producer David Maldonado, “Celia” is a logical step in a career that has included working with and managing huge talents like Puente, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony.

“It’s wild,” says Maldonado. “I’ve been involved in the music business for a long time. Then I decided to go into film and theater. Now, with ‘El Cantante’ [last fall’s movie about Hector Lavoe, starring Jennifer Lopez and Antony and co-produced by Lopez] and now ‘Celia,’ I’ve got the bug.”

Maldonado says his initial naivete about how the theater world works has actually helped. Among the show’s innovations are several English-language performances a week – though the story is so crystal-clear and music-oriented that everyone can enjoy any performance – and ushers who sell candy and sangria during the show’s intermission.

And, with word of mouth building, the time is ripe for the tour and album.

“With the tour, we’re trying to figure out whether we take this company on the road or leave this company in New York and then take a different one out,” says Maldonado. “The demand is very high, so that’s not even an issue.”

“Celia” has shown it can be a hit with the burgeoning Latino market for theater, but the producers dream of more.

“Our new ad campaign is about [trying to reach] non-Hispanic audiences,” he says. “The strategy was to get the core audience inside and then start crossing over.”

For Laugart – who gets to shout Cruz’s trademark “¡Azúcar!’ (“Sugar!”) and relive classic moments like her breakout single “El Yerbero Moderno” and the legendary 1975 concert with the Fania All-Stars at Yankee Stadium – the show has changed her life, and even the life of her 23-year-old son, who’s also a musician.

“Everyone calls me ‘Celia’ now,” laughs Laugart. “Even my son says, ‘Mom, people are calling me ‘Celia’s son!’

“Wherever Celia is, she’s going to be in a good place, because she deserves it.”

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Cesar and Ruben

August 17, 2007

latimes.com

Moving tribute to social strife
By Philip Brandes
August 17, 2007

“To be a man is to suffer for others,” declares Cesar Chavez at the start of a hunger strike that segues into a fierce ensemble number set to Don Henley’s “I Will Not Go Quietly” — one of several cultural juxtapositions that prove surprisingly effective in “Cesar & Ruben” at the NoHo Arts Center.

Expanded and reworked from its 2003 debut, writer-director-ctor Ed Begley Jr.’s musical tribute to the late farmworkers’ union organizer is something of a departure from the environmental causes with which Begley is more commonly associated. Nevertheless, the passionate heart of a fellow activist beats strong and steady here, along with obvious personal loyalty (Begley knew Chavez and was a pallbearer at his funeral).

Sporting a large cast of talented Latino and Anglo performers, Begley’s play presents a retrospective of the life of Chavez (Danny Bolero), framed in a surreal afterlife encounter with murdered L.A. Times columnist Ruben Salazar (Mauricio Mendoza). Scenes inventively combine dialogue with thematically related songs — some in supertitled Spanish, others in English — in an eclectic score that includes compositions by Enrique Iglesias, Peter Gabriel, Ruben Blades and others. All are capably sung by the performers and accompanied by Ron Snyder’s versatile live five-piece band.

The inclusion of Salazar, who was shot with a tear-gas canister at point-blank range by Los Angeles police during a National Chicano Moratorium march in 1970, adds another dimension of outrage to the oppression chronicled in the piece, culminating in the no-nonsense production number set to Santana’s “No One to Depend On” that closes the first act and the Phil Collins-David Crosby ballad “Hero,” which opens the second. Tight choreography by Frankie Anne adds visceral impact.

Embracing epic scope and a broad spectrum of social issues, this iconic portrait sacrifices some psychological depth. Yet its timely celebratory spirit comes amid the low ebb of complacency in labor relations that Chavez once warned about. Begley’s recurring use of the spiraling Tehachapi Loop railroad tracks near Chavez’s birthplace is an inspired metaphor for the cyclical history of social progress, where “time bends back around on itself” and the way forward is through revisiting the past.

Official Website – Cesar and Ruben


Trying On the Crown Of Salsa’s Queen

August 13, 2007

Trying On the Crown Of Salsa’s Queen

NEW YORK — Playing the Queen of Salsa onstage might be a dream come true for Xiomara Laugart, the star of the musical “Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz,” but the singer doesn’t want to mislead the audience.

“I am not Celia. I don’t sing like Celia,” says Laugart, a former member of the funk band Yerba Buena who is making her stage debut in the off-Broadway production.

“Imagine! She is the pioneer of the music and the representation of black, Latina and Cuban women. How can you represent that?

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