Tiempo Libre

‘The Sound of a Voice’ and ‘Cuba Libre’: Music for theater

Theatre Diaspora and Artists Repertory Theatre productions show the power -- and limitations -- of music in theater.

As if Oregon didn’t have enough music performances in the overabundance of concerts happening onstage this fall, music is also a big part of the state’s theater scene, from currently playing musicals like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and 42nd Street, to Portland Playhouse’s hip hop play How We Got On, a pair of musicals at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and many more — including the lavishly produced Cuba Libre at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and the bare bones staged reading of The Sound of a Voice, which concludes its two-performance run at Portland Center Stage on Saturday.

Music is the first thing we experience in Theatre Diaspora’s staged reading of David Henry Hwang’s 1983 playlet. Even before we hear the sound of a voice. Larry Tyrell takes the compact stage at the Armory’s intimate Ellyn Bye Theater and plays the bamboo Japanese flute. Along with last Saturday’s lowering clouds, the haunting shakuhachi and spare set (merely a cloth-draped folding rice paper screen and a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums) created just the right suspended, otherworldly mood for this 45-minute fable.

Given the prominence of music in this play’s plot, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hwang turned it into a short opera with music by Philip Glass, with whom he later collaborated on the science fiction chamber opera 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, the first show of his I ever saw, back in 1988. The Tony- and Obie-award winning Hwang knows from music, having co-created many operas and Broadway musicals and being most famous for a show with an obvious operatic connection, M. Butterfly.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in 'The Sound of a Voice.' Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

Chisao Hata and Larry Toda star in ‘The Sound of a Voice.’ Photo: Naomi Hawthorne.

This show begins with a lone, unnamed traveler arriving at a remote forest cabin in what’s evidently pre-industrial Japan, since it’s described as a two day horse ride from the nearest village. He’s greeted by its sole inhabitant, a woman (also never named) who offers him a room for the night before he continues on his journey the next day. In the morning, she encourages him to stay longer, he helps with some chores, they get to know each other, but not too much, as he’s mysteriously evasive about his past and she doesn’t much more specific about hers. Gradually we learn that his evasion is partly motivated by deception about the real reason for his appearance. As we learn more about the pair, and they about each other, conflicts emerge, and eventually a confrontation erupts — though not just with each other, but rather with their own inner contradictions.

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Never mind the politics, ‘Cuba Libre’ knows how to party

When Artists Repertory Theatre's world premiere musical finds its groove, it's all hands on stage

When Artists Repertory Theatre’s Cuba Libre starts to heat up—when the band Tiempo Libre has time to do some serious digging on a song, the cast of excellent singers is in full voice, and the dancers are stretching and entwining in the most sinuous ways—well, that’s just about the best party imaginable. And if you’re in the audience, instead of just observing and attempting to channel the thrills vicariously, you may just find yourself led onstage where the action is hottest. Axiom: The cool distance between audience and performer melts when booties are shaken with intent and abandon.

At the beating heart of this world premiere musical—music by Jorge Gómez, book by Carlos Lacámara (who wrote last season’s Exiles), choreography by Maija Garcia, direction from Dámaso Rodriguez, all Cubans or Cuban-Americans—the blood is flowing in salsa rhythms, more or less, and that’s a very good thing. I’m less sure of the story itself, which is loosely based on the experiences of Gómez, and the sense it tries to make of life in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union—and the subsequent collapse of Soviet subsidies to Cuba. But during the show, every time an alarm went off in my head, someone started singing or undulating or the beat became too infectious to maintain my reservations for long.

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