If you're a fan of 1940s MGM biopics shown late at night on AMC, you'll be a fan of Gardel's Tango, a new play (with music, of course) about composer, singer, and musical innovator Carlos Gardel. Gardel, who lived from 1890 to 1935, took Tango from the seedy alleys of Buenos Aires to gay Paree, Broadway, and Hollywood.
Gardel's Tango has all the elements - both good and bad - of one of those old biopics. There's a melodramatic, exposition-heavy script that takes you from boyhood to grave, adult actors playing the leads both teen- and middle-aged, inconsistent accents, a comic sidekick, a domineering mother, a show-ending funeral, and a few salacious moments to put on the poster and draw in the crowds ("The Good Girl He Kept Around the Corner!" "Ménage à trois in Gay Paree!"). What was thrilling in the 40s, however, sometimes comes off as campy and clichéd in 2016.
What is fun, here in 2016, is the company of talented actors who pour their heart into their roles, playing it straight with all the respect due a major motion picture melodrama. I want to acknowledge four of the leads here.
Anibal Silveyra, a seasoned Broadway and film performer, is the spitting image of the real Gardel. While Silveyra's voice was not up to speed on opening night, he performed songs and scenes with the strength and energy befitting the real man. His ovations were well-deserved.
Hildy Brooks is Gardel's mother, Maman ("Mother" in French. Gardel and mom emigrated to Argentina where he began his creative life). Brooks is an accomplished actress who grounded the show in a sense of reality and truth.
Mantha Balourdou is "Good Girl" Isabel del Valle, who believably transforms from teenager to kept woman to woman of integrity within the play.
Agustin Coppola plays Alfredo Le Pera, Gardel's sidekick and musical collaborator, in fine 1940s style. Press notes indicate that Lepera may have been a gay man and Coppola's performance as a loyal-to-the-death friend would have been even more touching if the play made his internal conflict clear.
Playwright John E. Lacey directed his own work. Except for a few obviously campy moments (Gardel's bug-eyed opening scenes with Isabel and Maman, for instance), the play moves at a workmanlike pace. A few hearty laughs break up the drama.
The play did lose me a few times. First, it was not clear how old the characters were in the opening scenes. (The actors are obviously not teenagers.) Second, Gardel played fast and loose with other people's money many times, and it did not make sense when he vehemently splits with his mentor over a matter of integrity. Third, the play abruptly ends with Gardel's funeral. But how and when did Gardel die? Even after the expositional eulogy, I didn't know.
It wasn't until I googled Gardel (hear him beautifully sing "The Day You Love Me" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGMQBFjvwkM ) that I learned how successful and powerful he was and how tragic his death was.
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