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Cuba Cracked Open

Cuba Libre is a biomusical by Cubans for Americans

Sometimes things just happen at the perfect time. Like, say, the debut of a musical about Castro's Cuba immediately following the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Enter Cuba Libre. Directed by Artists Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez, the bilingual world premiere tells the story of a fictional musician struggling through life during Cuba's "Special Period"—Castro's name for the era of economic desperation in his country after the Soviet Union fell. But it's more than fiction for the show's many collaborators.

The idea for this show actually predates Cool Pope getting together two countries that used to point world-ending armaments at one another. In fact, it predates Rodriguez's time with the company. He started putting the show together back when he lived in Los Angeles. After seeing Fela!—the "biomusical" about afrobeat legend Fela Kuti—a producer who knew that Rodriguez was Cuban-American suggested that he do something similar with Cuban timba music.

While Cuban music doesn't have the same larger-than-life inventor that Fela! had in Kuti, Rodriguez found something better: living stars who wanted to collaborate. Tiempo Libre, the Grammy-nominated group helmed by pianist Jorge Gómez, has a packed schedule between international tours and appearances on The Tonight Show and Dancing With the Stars. But when Rodriguez approached Gómez after attending a show, the musician agreed to work with him. Together they formed a trio with Cuban-American playwright Carlos Lacámara, who had previously written a trilogy of plays about Cuba. And Cuba Libre was born.

When Rodriguez says Gómez is collaborating, he means it. Tiempo Libre has parked it in town for every rehearsal. Gómez is also pivotal to the narrative of the play. Cuba Libre's protagonist is an amalgam of several Cuban musicians, including Gómez. Like Gómez, he's married to his manager and struggled to survive during the Special Period. One scene finds him making a series of trades, underscored by congas, until his jacket becomes a trumpet.

This kind of thing was common during the Special Period, when Cubans had to barter for even the most basic goods. Gómez candidly speaks out about how horrible Cuba was during that time, but Rodriguez takes a more measured approach. "The situation is a lot more complex than any one political viewpoint," he explains. "It's been complicated by a lot of time."

Broadcasting an overt political message is less critical than telling an intimate story about Cuba in this period that's accessible, he says. While showy productions like Cuba Libre have so many collaborators it can be a logistical nightmare, Rodriguez says that rehearsing the show has been "an unusually joyful process." He credits this to the deep personal investment that so many of the people working on it have —several actors in the show are also Cuban-American.

It's a story you might not see anywhere else. "You get a sense of the difference between a tourist visiting Cuba," Rodriguez says, "and what it's like to be a Cuban."

see it: Cuba Libre is at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4355, 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays and noon Wednesday, Oct. 21. Through Nov. 15. $35-$56.