By Stephanie Trudeau; Directed by Deborah Wright Houston
Off Off Broadway, Cabaret
Runs through 11.16.17
Pangea Restaurant and Supper Club, 178 Second Avenue
by Eleanor J. Bader on 11.4.17
Stephanie Trudeau in Chavela: Think of Me. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining, engaging, yet sketchy look at the life and music of ranchera singer Chavela Vargas.
When Mexican artist Frida Kahlo first met Costa Rican-born musician Chavela Vargas (1919-2012), she gushed that her new pal was “an extraordinary lesbian.” The two became inseparable, with Chavela singing while Frida painted. Muralist Diego Rivera, Frida’s spouse, was also part of the mix, and Chavela credited him as an important mentor and guide. For a year, the three lived in Casa Azul, Frida’s Mexico City home, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Leon Trotsky and other left-wing rebels and bohemians. Chavela loved it—and by all accounts found the debates, and the wild parties, intoxicating and eye-opening.
Creator-performer Stephanie Trudeau’s Chavela: Think of Me tells the singer’s story and provides a glimpse into her tumultuous life and career. We’re told that Chavela's mother ran off with a lover when her daughter was seven; her father, doubting the girl's paternity, sent her to live with family members in the countryside. But Chavela bristled at farm life, running off to Mexico City at the age of 14. There, she busked on street corners and sang in clubs, cantinas, and bars. Along the way she caught the ear of José Alfredo Jiménez, considered the world’s greatest ranchera composer.
The pair soon began to collaborate, their efforts a direct challenge to the belief that ranchera was exclusively “men’s music.” Chavela further violated propriety by performing in slacks, Trudeau reports. And she drank—heavily. Nonetheless, her shows were well attended by both curiosity seekers and fans. But when Kahlo died in 1954, the grief-stricken Chavela inexplicably fled to Cuba. Once again, however, fate smiled upon her: she met Macorina, a famous former courtesan who inspired her to write the song that would become her signature: "Ponme La Mano Aqui, Macorina (Put Your Hand Here, Macorina)."
There's more to this amazing story (a return to Mexico, a decade of silence, sobriety, and new celebrity via the films of Pedro Almodóvar), but nonetheless, I left the theater feeling somewhat dissatisfied. In short, despite the fact that Trudeau can certainly belt a tune, I wanted more. Among other things, I wanted additional details about Chavela's childhood, her ability to relate to the rich and famous, and her recovery from alcoholism. I wanted to know where she was during the years of her "disappearance." I wanted to know about her many loves and if she ever found—or even wanted—a serious mate. All of this seems essential to the story. That said, Chavela is still entertaining, if thematically slight. I hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future, a deeper and more detailed treatment of Chavela Vargas' life will become available. It will surely make one hell of a production.
(Chavela: Think of Me plays at Pangea Restaurant and Supper Club, 178 Second Avenue, through November 19, 2017. The running time is 65 minutes. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door plus a $20 food/drink minimum, and are available at pangeanyc.com. For more information visit stephanie-trudeau.com.)
Chavela: Think of Me is by Stephanie Trudeau. Directed by Deborah Wright Houston.
The cast is Stephanie Trudeau. The band is David Lahm (piano) and Ben Lapidus (guitar and percussion).