WASHINGTON, May 31, 2015 – Washington’s In Series routinely creates musical concept shows nobody else seems to think of first. So it is with their current production, “Latino Music Fever.” We caught the opening night performance of this scintillating south-of-the-border musical revue Thursday at 14th Street’s Source, and we can assure you, it’s a winner.
The concept behind “Latino Music Fever” is akin to taking a trip back in time on a musical Wayback Machine. In the late 1920s and even more in the 1930s, Latin American popular music was introduced to audiences in this country, often via nearby Cuba, a country that was politically much closer to the U.S. at that time.
This was also the time when jazz and Big Band music latched onto the imagination of America’s younger set, who collectively thrilled to the brilliant popular musicians and singers who brought this music to stage and screen.
Romantic songs and dance tunes were in great demand. Novelty also scored high on the musical wish list. Perhaps that’s why, little by little, exotic Latin American-style music established itself so firmly in the 1930s and beyond. Back then, this was something new in the states, exotic, exciting and even a little risqué, best exemplified, perhaps, by sexy new dance styles like the rumba.
Mainstream Latin bandleaders like Xavier Cugat were key in promoting and performing tunes and dances with a Latin beat. But it also didn’t hurt that big band directors like Artie Shaw and popular singers like Bing Crosby championed this “exotic” music, along with those sexy new rhythms and dance styles that soon swept the country.
The In Series’ current production brings back quite a few of the most popular Latin American numbers from this era in the new revue. It’s interesting to note that at least a couple of these songs have made return engagements to recording studios as recently as 2013, proving indeed that popular old songs can still seem like something new today even if you can’t quite place where you heard them first.
Need an example? Osvaldo Farrés’ well-known bolero/cha cha tune “Quizás, quizás, quizás” (“Perhaps”) was first heard in the U.S. in 1947. But here it is again, sung by Andrea Bocelli on his 2013 CD, “Passione,” joined in duet by none other than J Lo herself.
Each of the present show’s 24 tunes is sung by one or more of the In Series’ vocalists performing amidst the gaudy backdrop of a steamy tropical night club stage. Indeed, this small, intimate night club setting makes it feel almost as if the audience is there at the very beginning.
Helping out with the setting, the mood and the atmosphere, this production’s quartet of veteran vocalists know this music inside and out, delivering each song in a way that convinces you that it rises from both heart and soul.
This sterling cast of singers includes Adriana Gonzalez, Patricia Portillo, José Sacín and Alex Alburqueque, whose powerfully expressive voice was particularly notable. (And yes, that’s the way he spells his name!) The singers are ably accompanied by the show’s music director and pianist Mari Paz and the authentically colorful background rhythms provided by percussionist Iván Navas.
Many Boomers will find that from a third to a half of the songs on the program are lodged in their long-term memory banks even though they may remember them as something else. The English language versions initially popularized in the U.S. took liberties at times with the original Spanish language lyrics. Hence the apparent discrepancy.
To make sure there’s no difficulty understanding what’s happening on the stage, translations from the original Spanish are thoughtfully made available at to non-Spanish speakers, though many of the show’s numbers are sung by the cast in alternating English and Spanish lyrics.
Thursday evening’s performance was rather sparsely attended, alas, which was something of a disappointment. Perhaps some of the Series’ growing audience was on extended post-Memorial Day holiday or felt unfamiliar with the revue’s all Latin American program, not knowing exactly what they’ll encounter. But actually, that’s the secret that drives this delightful show. It’s the trip down memory lane that you didn’t quite expect.
Highly recommended, and a great way to start off another torrid Washington summer.
Note: For its upcoming final weekend, this production moves to the Mexican Cultural Institute. See below for details.
Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)
The final performances of the In Series’ “Latino Music Fever” will take place this weekend at The Mexican Cultural Institute, located at 2829 16th St., NW, Washington D.C.
Dates and Times: Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets and Information: Tickets priced from $16-35. Call 202-204-7763 or visit InstantSeats.