Fiddler on the Roof with a sabor a Cuba doesn’t cut it.
War is complicated. And as the old adage goes, history always repeats itself. Michel Hausmann’s musical The Golem of Havana at The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama reminds that the trauma of war doesn’t end when war ends. It continues—it transgresses time and space, even physics.
The Golem of Havana takes place in Cuba in the 1950s. Fulgencio Batista (Felipe Gorastiza) is running a corrupt and repressive regime and Cuba is on the brink of revolution. However, Hausmann places us in an unusual household, one that would not regularly come to mind when speaking of the Cuban Revolution: the household of a Jewish tailor who immigrated to the country after the end of WWII.
Pinchas (Patrick Kerr) is a Hungarian Jew who makes little money making suits for his friends who never pay him back. His wife, Yutka (Yelena Shmulenson) is a hardworking woman who thinks her husband is a schmuck and whose sister died in a concentration camp during the war. Their daughter Rebeca (sometimes pronounced Rivka or Rebe) is a teenager with big dreams who draws a comic book called The Golem of Havana, inspired by the golem of the Jewish tradition: a creature made of mud to protect the Jews from persecution. Their maid, Maria (Rheaume Crenshaw) is an African-Cuban who teaches Rebe how to worship the goddess of water Yemaya. Maria’s son Teo (Ronald Peet) however is the guerilla rebel who steals Rebe’s heart.
Rebeca (Liba Vaynberg) is the lead and narrator of the play and opens the production with its theme song, “The Golem of Havana.” Cuban beats salsa their way down from the rafters, where the incredible band sits tooting trumpets and beating bongos, to the stage where the whole cast sways their hips and smile, elbows held high as each of them sings in Spanish and English. This is the moment when the audience realizes there is not one lousy singer in the ensemble.
The music in this production (by Salomon Lerner and lyrics by Len Schiff) is breathtaking: a combination of traditional Jewish beats (Fiddler on the Roof-type ballads) with Cuban dance numbers and African tribal chants. Additionally, the cast gives their voices to the space to create ambient sounds, an interesting choice given that the production is lead by a full-fledged band. The outcome is an immersive experience that provides different acoustic levels to the production. The band takes care of the music playing on the radio and accompanies the amazing voices of the cast in each song, but the cast provides the intimate sounds of what’s happening on and around the stage, bringing the audience deeper into the jungles of Havana or the corners of a drafty attic.
While the music is incredible and the songs are ridiculously catchy (even the sad ones, like “Nightmare”), the book is complex and the actors are superb, making for not only an entertaining musical, but a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching production. Hausmann connects the mass emigration of the Jews from Europe to the diaspora of African slaves to Latin America. He discusses religion and in one instance has a Jewish girl praying to an African goddess. There are ghosts and graves, shadows and guns and he doesn’t shy away from death. At one point, the cast raises their fists in the air and yells ‘viva Fidel!’ (to the shock of some in the audience) just to turn around minutes later and reveal that the golem—the force protecting people from injustice—became a power-hungry monster as cruel as Batista.
The Golem of Havana is funny, smart and absolutely gorgeous. Hausmann takes apart the histories of two different traumatic events and brings the issues of right vs. wrong, family vs. country, us vs. them musically to the stage, creating a truly multicultural, multilingual and very worthwhile theatrical experience.