Review: ‘¡Guaracha!,’ Jubilantly Reclaiming Its Roots

The renowned Cuban guarachera Celia Cruz once declared “life is a carnival,” and the characters in the vibrant Spanglish musical “¡Guaracha!,” playing at Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, agree — for the most part.

Even as they wait for a chaotic traffic jam on a busy San Juan street to clear, they shake and shimmy to a song on the radio that repeats the line “life is a phenomenal thing.” It’s a joyous anthem they’re using to fool themselves, a dance to keep from crying.

Based on the novel “La Guaracha del Macho Camacho,” by the Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez, this musical adaptation by Pregones/PRTT’s artistic director Rosalba Rolón, who also directed, pays tribute to the musical genre that originated in 18th-century Cuba as a means of protest you could move your hips to.

Relying on irony, double entendres and witty rhymes, the guaracha eventually found its way into Cuban bufo theater and, thanks to touring companies, traveled in the late 19th century to Puerto Rico, where it became a part of the cultural fabric.

As the genre grew more popular, its pleasures overshadowed its political origins; Rolón’s “¡Guaracha!,” set in 1975, seeks to reclaim that forgotten past.

Many might be surprised to discover, for instance, the origins of the famous guaracha “María Cristina me Quiere Gobernar” (“María Cristina Wants to Govern Me”), in which a weary man explains the many ways in which his lover wants to rule his life. It began as a song Spanish troops sang to protest the claim to the throne made by the 19th-century regent queen María Christina of the Two Sicilies after her husband died, a dispute that ended in war.

Within the genre there is an implicit criticism of colonialism, although the characters in “¡Guaracha!” are no longer facing Spanish forces but rather the seeping influence of American culture on the island. That is why Graciela (Yaraní del Valle) gets her news from Time magazine, while her husband, Senator Vicente Reynosa (Gabriel Hernández), seeks re-election by praising the “messianic” American troops in Vietnam and running the campaign called “Yankees, this is home!”

Their son Benny (a charmingly aloof Gilberto Gabriel) is obsessed with Ferraris and wishes to speak, or sing, of nothing else. Benny’s passion for luxury strikes a contrast with the people around him as those of lower social status find their lives mingled with members of the careless upper class.

China (a heartbreaking Diana Pou), who describes herself as “a Cinderella and door-to-door service whore,” is the Senator’s mistress.

While Graciela lounges at home, China must leave her baby in the care of the local gossip Doña Chon (a hilarious Rossmery Almonte), who reluctantly accepts the gig because she “needs the pesos,” after her son is sent to prison.

Rolón’s efficient adaptation captures these details and creates fully rounded characters that convey lifetimes within the limits of a song. In stream-of-consciousness style the characters explain their individual world views as an omnipresent Deejay (a suave Mario Mattei) underscores each story with a reminder that “life is a phenomenal thing.”

The spare set and disco costumes by Harry Nadal allow the performers to shine unobtrusively, while the lighting design by Lucrecia Briceño seamlessly transports us from the traffic jam to the characters’ minds.

The uniformly great ensemble players seem to be having the time of their lives onstage, an infectious feeling they transmit to audience members, who appear ready to leave their seats and join the party.

Through Dec. 15 at Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, Manhattan; 718-585-1202, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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