King of Clubs

Club Tropigala's heritage dates back to nineteenth-century Cuba, but when the curtain rises, this could only be Miami

The Tropigala has played host to beauty pageants, conventions, and well over a hundred TV programs and specials, including the 1991 Emmy Awards and several ASCAP and BMI conventions. Even the six-page dinner menu is versatile -- while La Ronde's list was limited to a handful of entrees and a few appetizers, Tropigala offers everything from duck a l'orange to Beluga caviar.

That range is reflected even more vividly on-stage. At the beginning of the evening, most audience members are on the far side of 50, and English-speaking. (Retirees come by the busload year-round, but during the off-season the tables are only peppered with tourists.) On this night the crowd will be treated to two hourlong musical revues, both unabashedly nostalgic. "Night on the Town," a sometimes bawdy mix of Las Vegas and Latin influences, has been a staple of the three-dozen-strong Tropigala cast for about a year. But the opener, "Magic of Music," is brand-new -- and still being tinkered with by director-choreographer Lobato. Billed as "a musical journey through time," it features 25 numbers and 16 costume changes in the space of one hour. According to the Cachaldoras, it cost more than $1.2 million to produce. The first show is tailored for non-Latin audiences (who have been known to complain about too much Spanish-speaking by the staff), the second geared to Hispanics (who "will just walk out," according to some of the performers, if the music "isn't Latin enough").

The curtain rises. A video depicting prowling cave people wearing pelts and large, matted wigs is projected on a screen. Backstage, veteran artistic director Juan de la Portilla calls out to his stagehands: "AArriba! AArriba, por favor!" (Bespectacled and high-strung, De La Portilla is a former dancer with the Cuban national ballet who fled Havana on New Year's Day 1959 with two dollars in the pocket of his tuxedo.) The screen is pulled up to reveal three female dancers in animal-skin getups poised in front of a real waterfall set against a backdrop of fake rocks. More male and female dancers join them as vocalists Gaby Gabriel and Jeanette Colin (also clad in faux skins) sing "Music/Wondrous music/Has been with us since the dawn of time" to the tune of the Flintstones theme.

Hired for the Tropigala's first show in 1987, Gabriel is the only original employee still working at the club. In addition to his singing duties in the stage shows, he is the leader of the house orchestra (still managed by Gloria and Andres Senor). His nightly appearances have led to contracts for TV and radio commercials. "The Tropigala is the greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Gabriel, his wide smile revealing gleaming teeth. "Everything good in my career has happened because of the Tropigala."

A New York native, Colin has been in show biz for more than three decades and is a veteran of stage shows in New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Puerto Rico. Unlike most of her colleagues, nearly all of whom are Hispanic, she's used to mixing Anglo and Latin elements. Dancers Betty Valdivia, who's nineteen, and Joel Mejias, who is 21, were in Spain with the Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Cuba when they defected two years ago. (According to Mejias, 18 of the 27 dancers on that tour defected). Both were flamenco-trained but answered an ad in the paper for auditions at the Tropigala. "Here you have the opportunity to dance a little of everything," says Valdivia, seemingly unimpressed with her achievement in securing a full-time job in the arts.

The show progresses through the centuries, from La Traviata to "Old Man River." When Gabriel sings Al Jolson's "My Mammy," he moves to the edge of the stage and gets the audience to sing along. They know all the words. A patron at a table up front is videotaping the show. The finale is a Cole Porter medley.

Much of the condo crowd leaves, and the orchestra plays another set before "Night on the Town" commences promptly at 10:00. The new patrons filtering in are younger, Spanish-speaking, and dressed less formally than their older non-Hispanic predecessors. After the second revue concludes, the remaining non-Hispanics depart. Though they could have stayed till the end (showgoers pay when they leave, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $30 or $40, depending on the price of the headliner and how many performances they stayed to see), this exodus is typical, owing to the general Anglo unfamiliarity with Latin performers. The Cachaldoras are working with Julio Sabala on a crossover bid; the protean-faced impersonator aspires to an all-English "spectacular" to debut at the Tropigala within a year. He has been working on impressions of Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, and Stevie Wonder, the comic explains, having recently returned from a Central American tour to his newly acquired home down the street from Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. "I give Alex Cachaldora the most credit for this," Sabala says. "He is a person who is friendly, hard-working, very important in my future plans."

Tonight, of course, Sabala is not performing. The crowd assembling to see the headliners is almost exclusively composed of venezolanos llaneros (Venezuelans from the countryside) -- one of the niche markets the Tropigala management has so deliberately lured. They're here to see comedian El Conde del Guacharo, a compact, freshly barbered 35-year-old who performs in a straw hat, T-shirt, and sandals. El Conde is a superstar in his country, but most of his jokes don't readily translate into non-Venezuelan idioms. About once a year, he packs the Tropigala with homesick paisanos. This time he's not only plugging his own long-distance calling card, he's brought a fellow comedian, Rafucho "El Maracucho," as well as Reynaldo Armas, Venezuela's top singer of criollo (indigenous) music.

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