King of Clubs

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

Tuxedoed waiters rush to set up tables for the newcomers forming a boisterous line at the entrance, and the orchestra begins its last set, which bears little resemblance to the first. Now Gaby Gabriel welcomes everyone in Spanish, making cordial references to Venezuela and at one point remarking jovially, "Yo soy de Hialeah, Cuba." All the songs are now sung in Spanish. The front part of the stage has been lowered into the floor, leaving the dance floor open. And after the first few numbers, the floor remains packed. Men in leather jackets, women in short skirts and high-heeled sandals eagerly dance salsa, cumbias -- even the macarena.

When the music is over, rowdy audience members pound the tables and clink their glasses until Rafucho "El Maracucho" appears. His 45-minute routine is largely topical, and particularly tough on Venezuelan political leaders past and present. When he finishes, the applause is rousing.

Reynaldo Armas, a tall, silver-haired singer whose vaguely Asian eyes seem always to be scanning a distant Venezuelan horizon, can't get through a song without a female audience member making her way to the stage to offer him a note or, occasionally, a flower. He bends and kisses each visitor, then tenderly unfolds and reads each note to himself. "Tengo ganas de llorar" ("I feel like crying"), he sings. He makes his exit singing, stepping down from the stage and wending his way through the aisles, pausing for snapshots with adoring fans, women and men alike, shaking hands, kissing, all the while crooning into his cordless microphone until he vanishes through curtains at the side of the stage. A chant goes up: !Otra! !Otra! Armas and his musicians return for one encore.

At this point in the evening's entertainment, past two o'clock in the morning, it seems the audience could not wax any more passionate. But when El Conde dances out, the response is positively riotous, and it's easy to see why the Cachaldoras are mulling over a Tropigala spinoff. The superstar comedian's one-hour set mixes sexual innuendo with more swipes at Venezuelan politicians, and concludes on a surprisingly refined note, with several boleros. By the time the stage lights are extinguished and the valet parking rush clears, it's only a few hours till sunrise.

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