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“La Cancíon,” a Musical Love Song for All Ages

by Bonnie Rosenstock
November 20, 2017
Repertorio Español
138 East 27 Street
New York, NY 10016
212-225-9999
“La Canción,” the “song” of the title is what Rafa, a young Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, woke up singing without knowing why or where it came from. His quest to discover its meaning is the premise of this delightful, heartfelt, down-to-earth musical at the Spanish-language Repertorio Español, now celebrating its 50-year anniversary. It was written by Cándido Tirado and directed by Edward Torres and features original music and lyrics by two-time Latin Grammy winner Vico C, one of the founders of reggaeton (hip-hop with a Caribbean flavor), with choreography by the award-winning Carlos Neto. It also brings home some powerful messages.

In a lengthy email, Tirado, who moved to the South Bronx from Puerto Rico with his divorced mother and sister when he was 11, wrote that he wanted to deal with the issues of family. “What’s told and what isn’t told. Lies and truths. Secrets,” he said. “Then add a sprinkle of the issue of immigration and how it divides families. We are seeing the separation of families more and more as it concerns immigration. Puerto Ricans don’t have that issue, but the rest of Latin America does. We had Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the cast who arrived in New York in the last four or five years. The Puerto Ricans didn’t have to worry about their immigration status, while the Dominicans were very concerned about it. That plays out in the play.”

Rafa (Toly Rod) lives with his grandmother (Zulema Clares), who raised him, as his mother died in childbirth and his father was never in the picture, circumstances that color his sense of self. He and his best friend Star (Juan Luis Espinal) aspire to become rap singers. Although this old-style Dominican bachata love song doesn’t fit the mold, Rafa can’t get it out of his head and decides to adapt it for the upcoming Hunts Point Club competition. But first, he must track down a recording and find out who wrote and sang this haunting song. What he discovers will be life changing. (Note: Bachata, which originated in the Dominican Republic in the first half of the 20th century, melding European, indigenous and African musical elements, underwent a transformation with new instrumentation in the 1990s and has become one of the most popular Latin dance and music styles.)

Rafa is facing challenges and obstacles wherever he turns. His tough as nails grandmother is opposed to his seeking the mysterious origins of the song. He is in love with his childhood friend and next-door neighbor Angie (Diana Pou), who rebuffs him. She is in college studying to be a teacher and has a professional boyfriend who promises to set her up in a good pre-war apartment in Manhattan after she graduates. Then there is his arch-nemesis—every musical needs one—the rapper and aptly named Muerte (Gabriel Hernández), who belts out a show-stopping rap song titled “Bully.”

Tirado said the play is like a mask, and the characters hide what they feel and their vulnerabilities behind it. “When you see Muerte come on stage, he’s wearing his pants so low you see his underwear,” said Tirado. “We think we know him. He’s the neighborhood thug. But that’s his mask. In the song, he tells us what his world is like. I think the audience empathizes with him although they don’t like him to the very end. Here, I must give Vico C the credit. He saw so much more for Muerte than I originally did.”

Since the musical seems to be geared to the younger set, this song and others hit the mark. (I went to a weekday matinee on November 2 filled with engaged pre-teens and teens, but on nights and weekends the show plays for a typical adult audience.) Muerte’s backup dancers, Woo Woo (Maria Cotto) and Cuca (Jenyvette Vega) tell him he can’t sing his “whack” misogynistic competition song, "Nail me, papi,”and quit on him. Later, Rafa and company sing, “We say no to guns, violence and assholes.”

Tirado said that Cuca and Woo Woo are two of his favorite characters. “They also wear a mask—the one of shallow, neighborhood dancers,” he observed. “We look at them the way we look at backup dancers in musical videos. Bodies there to support men, but not complete human beings. I wanted to transform that image. The audience loves the revelation that Cuca and Woo Woo are medical students.”

He noted that all the characters have these dualities. “Rafael [Rafa’s Dominican father] owns a bodega, but he was actually a talented musician. Angie dates guys she thinks will take her out of the neighborhood, but she’s denying her true feelings for Rafa. And Rafa is a confused young man who walks in the world with his feet up in the air and when he finds out the truth about his family, he’s able to put his feet back on the ground.”

The choreography, music and lyrics seamlessly drive the plot forward. Tirado credits Torres for fusing all the elements together. “I learned so much during this production about musical theater thanks to him,” he said.

Torres also brought in Neto to do the choreography. “I think Carlos’ choreography hits the tone of the music and the play right on the nose. His choreography seems so natural. I can’t see it any other way,” said Tirado. But he acknowledged that Neto had a tough task at hand since some in of the cast were highly developed dancers, but others weren’t. “I think he was able to manage that situation really well,” he added.

The Portuguese-born Neto, 32, also admitted, via email, that working on “La Canción” was challenging. “Even though most [of the] actors have had some sort of dance experience, they were not specifically trained in street styles,” he said.

Neto describes his style as a mix of Street Dance Style foundations, including Hip-Hop, House Dance and Locking with an LA choreography-style influence. “A musically diverse choreography executed through the dynamics of movement and body control,” said the multi-faceted choreographer. “I developed it over the years through my dancing career. My background in martial arts also helps with execution, while my acting background helps me find truth in my dancing and in the artists I work with or choreograph for.” Neto also holds a Master’s in international journalism and is a popular Street Jazz dance teacher at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance.

Neto said that for “La Canción” there were a couple of scenes where he decided to use Hip-Hop-inspired choreography and for others he wanted salsa and rumba, assisted by Natalie Cruz. “My other two assistants, Maria Cherniske and Elodie Dufroux (Elodie was a dancer in the show for a while), helped coordinate all actors and dancers to eventually create a story line through movement that makes sense,” he said.

“Usually I build each number slowly and gradually keep adding up details and ideas until it feels real and complete,” he added.

The talented cast comes from many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, as well as from the U.S. While the production is in Spanish, with an occasional nod to how the younger generation sprinkles in English when they talk together, the excellent supra titles bridge the language gap.

The mysterious song is called “Nunca pensé que era así, “I never thought it would be this wonderful.” The show is also wonderful, a feel-good experience for young and old alike in any language.

“La Canción” is in rotation with other Repertorio Español productions. For schedule information and tickets, go to repertorio.nyc.
Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir


Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Repertorio Español's “La Canción”.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Palma Mir

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