Love in Hard Times--The Music of Paul Simon
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2008
The responsible theatre reviewer in me says: Songs from The Capeman, the spectacular concert performance of Paul Simon's only musical, playing at BAM this week, is an invaluable second look at a very underappreciated work. Simon's score, rooted in the rhythms of Latin pop and classic doo wop, is gorgeous and infectious, and combined with the soulful poetry of his lyrics, tells a sad story of circumstance and salvation among the Latino underclass of urban America. It's been ten years since The Capeman got the bum's rush from the mainstream media when it debuted on Broadway; its reconsideration is well past due, and this stellar presentation is a great place for that to begin.
The kid who grew up loving and deeply inspired by the music of Paul Simon, who is still very much alive inside said responsible theatre reviewer, says, simply: Wow. Songs from The Capeman kicks off a three-part series of tribute concerts to Simon (next week's looks at his African-inspired music; the final entry is simply called American Tunes). Each features an impressive lineup of artists, but the capper is that Simon himself appears in all of them. He sings only one number in Songs from the Capeman, the melancholy and evocative "Trailways Bus," and I will not soon forget how it felt to see him perform this piece live. He's in fine voice, and the guitar break, during which he turns to face his fellow musicians, is particularly to be treasured.
The rest of the concert is given over to others, and they are splendid. Oscar Hernandez leads the Spanish Harlem Orchestra through a glorious account of the score. Hernandez was the conductor of the Broadway Capeman; other performers from that production who are part of this performance include Luba Mason as the mother of one of the Capeman's murdered victims; Ray De La Paz, recreating his sensational turn as the santero (a fortune teller in Puerto Rico); and Frankie Negron, who was in the chorus of the original show and now bursts forth as the Capeman himself in Act I of the concert. (The main roles are all multiple-cast, to spread the wealth around a bit.) They're joined by Jorge Maldonado, Claudette Sierra, Nicole Lequerica, and Obie Bermudez, and backed by a terrific chorus that includes Spanish Harlem regulars Marco Bermudez and William Torres. The sounds they make under Hernandez's expert direction are glorious.
A few cameos, though, provide the most thrilling moments of the evening, starting, of course, with Simon's appearance. Rocker Steve Conte, accompanying himself on electric guitar, plays a guard at the penitentiary where the Capeman is serving his sentence, and performs two songs—"Killer Wants to Go to College" and "Virgil and the Warden"—he's an inspired choice for the role. And Danny Rivera, whom the program describes as "Puerto Rico's national voice" opens and closes the concert with the show's signature song "Born in Puerto Rico" and also performs "El Malecon." His work here is nothing short of electrifying.
Together they highlight the potent drama of Simon's Capeman score. The narrative of The Capeman begins in Puerto Rico, where Salvador Agron is born in the 1940s, then moves quickly to Hell's Kitchen in New York City in the '50s, where he and other Puerto Rican immigrant teens formed a gang called The Vampires. Agron, who liked to wear a cape and carry a silver knife (hence his sobriquet), was arrested for killing two boys—a crime for which he famously and publicly showed no regret (the video footage of the actual Agron being arrested is projected during the show). He goes to prison and educates and rehabilitates himself, against the odds. But salvation isn't achieved easily, and the world does not ultimately prove a welcoming place for the grown-up Agron.
Songs like the infectious "Satin Summer Nights" and "Quality," both led by Negron here, capture the restless energy of the city streets where Salvador grew up. "Time Is An Ocean," beautifully sung by Sierra, Bermudez, and Maldonado, reflects the sorrow of the arrogant boy growing into a more responsible man. Two choral numbers near the end of the show, "You Fucked Up My Life" and "Lazarus/Last Drop of Blood," move the story to its near-tragic conclusion.
The concert augments Simon's score with some of the music that influenced him in his career and in The Capeman. The show opens with some doo-wop selections by Little Anthony and the Imperials, who look and sound amazing after 50(!) years in show business. ("Tears on My Pillow" brought the house down.) Hernandez and the orchestra perform one of their signature numbers, "Esperame En El Cielo," which is gorgeous; the impact of its sound on Simon's work becomes especially clear during the encore. After the bows, Simon returned to the stage, and I was thrilled to see the mic in his hand. When the applause died down, he launched into "Late in the Evening," and the crowd went crazy. Enough said.