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The didactic perils of the stage biography that Thurgood cannily evades are on full, unmissable view in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s El Bola: Cuba’s King of Song, a world-premiere musical that requires you to take on faith the suitability of the appellation in its title. It’s yet another making-of-a-musical musical, this one chronicling playwright Héctor Quintero’s struggle to stage a show about singer/pianist/songwriter Ignacio Jacinto Villa, who earned the facetious nickname Bola de Nieve, or Snowball, for his dark brown skin and rotund figure. Mildly diverting performances of torch songs Villa wrote (“Ay, Amor”) or memorably interpreted (“La Vie en Rose”) segue awkwardly into scenes of Héctor lecturing his wife or a visiting a newspaper reporter on Villa’s significance. There’s also an inexplicably large role for Enrique Devine as a transsexual who bullies Héctor into casting her, presumably because transsexual diva = wacky.
I am, full disclosure, far from the ideal audience member for this, reliant on the projected English surtitles and unfamiliar with Villa’s oeuvre. (It’s possible what feels like hidebound literalness in Quintero’s dialogue is the product of a nuance-scrubbing English translation.) I can report only that the backstage-hijinks stuff—financing problems, high-maintenance cast members, etc.—is boring, and unconnected in any revealing or interesting way to the substance of Villa’s life.
The closest El Bola comes to stoking curiosity about its subject is when it allows Marcelino Valdes, who evinces a low-key charm as Villa, to perform songs like “Tu Me Has de Querer” accompanied by bits of Villa’s stage patter and barely interacting with the other players. His performances exist mostly in a vacuum from the rest of the cast, as though set inside Héctor’s mind. In its present form at least, that’s probably where El Bola ought to have stayed.