When singer-actor-writer-director Florencia Cuenca was a young girl in Mexico City, performing since the age of three, she always watched 54 Below videos on YouTube. She loved the shows there and on Broadway, in addition to the music of her own cultural heritage, including mariachi. Following a series of sold-out concerts around the East Coast, at such acclaimed venues as Lincoln Center, Joe’s Pub, The Kraine, and MASS MoCa, the talented team of Cuenca and her husband Jaime Lozano – like his wife, a Mexican-born NYC-based musical multi-hyphenate (a noted composer-arranger-orchestrator-writer-director-singer-musician of musical theater, concerts, and recording), brought their latest authentic and impassioned cabaret concert, Broadway en Spanglish, to 54 Below for one night only on February 7, and what a night it was!
Backed by NYC’s renowned Mariachi Real de México de Ramon Ponce, the rousing show featured powerful lead vocals by the richly resonant and emotionally expressive Cuenca, with original new arrangements by Lozano and Jesús Altamira, of six classics from the Broadway stage and one from his own current Off-Broadway musical El Otro Oz (now playing an extended engagement through March 3, in the Atlantic for Kids programming initiative at Atlantic Stage 2). Each song offered a bilingual combination of lyrics in Spanish and English, for a ‘Spanglish’ hybrid by Cuenca that replicated the immigrant experience of a life spanning two cultures, with two different languages, while often struggling to remember the exact word in either. In so doing, they brought a new perspective to the already meaningful show tunes, reset to the rhythm and beat of the popular Mexican folk music, with Lozano, in traditional mariachi costume, masterfully accompanying Cuenca on lead acoustic guitar.
The show opened with the iconic “On Broadway” (a hit for The Drifters in 1963, and later included in the 1995 revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe, featuring the music of Leiber and Stoller), which expressed the artist’s aspirations of being there. But, she explained, it didn’t happen immediately, so the couple “decided to do their own thing” – a fusion of their Mexican roots with their journey to the American Dream. With her blockbuster voice, natural moves to the music, and emotive face, hands, and arms, Cuenca made every number her own, from the need to move on in “Let It Go” (by Kristen Anderson Lopez and Bobby Lopez, from Disney’s Frozen) to the heartbreak of “Burn” (from friend and supporter Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-cultural Hamilton), which closed the themed set list, in a rendition filled with anger and pain that brought down the house and gave each member of the sensational band (associate music director Yahir Montes on guitar, Mario Trujillo on violin, Hugo Moren on trumpet, and founder Ramon Ponce on guitarrón) an introduction and solo.
In between were her poignant renditions of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company, “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress by Sara Bareilles, with a spectacular long note that highlighted Cuenca’s extraordinary range and breath control, Next to Normal’s “I Miss the Mountains” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, and “No Podemos Regresar” (“We Can’t Go Back”) from El Otro Oz, by “a great Mexican composer” (said Lozano, joking about himself – though he was right!), all set to the stirring mariachi music, with stories made very personal, as the open, humorous, and engaging couple explained in their direct commentary and ebullient interactions with the audience. They also expressed the need for Latine stories to be told, for the community to support one another (they do; I was fortunate to be seated with the fabulous Migguel Anggelo and Mau Martinez, who were among the many members of Lozano’s chosen “familia” of theater artists and collaborators in attendance, as was their seven-year-old son Alonzo), and for everyone of every ethnicity to join together, because, as Lozano noted, “It’s not a competition.”
Of course, the enthusiastic packed house demanded ¡otra! – or, more accurately, three encores – and Lozano and the band were more than happy to oblige, with a set of mariachi favorites (“Si Nos Dejan” and “El Rey” by José Alfredo Jiménez, and the beloved Mexican folk song “Cielito Lindo”), to which the audience enthusiastically sang along.
Broadway in Spanglish is a musical paradigm in its presentation of a world of cultural fusion and a celebration of cultural diversity. It’s what NYC is all about and what we should all aspire to and honor, as Cuenca and Lozano so beautifully do.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, without intermission.
Broadway en Spanglish played on Wednesday, February 7, 2024, at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, NYC.