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.”