Still, even if you don’t understand their Spanish lyrics, the songs prevail. Never forced into literal service as signboards for the plot but instead performed atmospherically by characters who would actually sing them, they lend coherence and depth to the story with their exquisite harmonies, delirious polyrhythms and raw brass. The exceptional music production — the work of a team led by Dean Sharenow and Marco Paguia — enhances that effect with arrangements appropriate to the new contexts and the intimate space of the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater. The blessedly live-sounding sound design is by Jonathan Deans.
And though I was less impressed by a series of balletic duets for the young sisters, which feel labored, the fizzy club dances are a delight. As choreographed by Patricia Delgado and Justin Peck, they match and heighten the music with intricate close partnering as limbs find ever more intricate ways of closing the space between bodies.
Ali’s staging, on a unit set by Arnulfo Maldonado that aptly suggests some of the cramped spaces in which the story transpires, does not yet reach that level. It is too often difficult, with 17 cast members and nine core musicians on the small and flatly lighted stage, to tell which location we’re in: studio, club, hotel, esplanade. Sometimes which era, too, though Dede Ayite’s taxonomy of caps and fedoras, high-waisted pants, flowy tunics and sock-hop skirts (not to mention showgirl kitsch) offers delightful clues.
Cramped, too, is much of the action between the songs, lending a hectic feeling to material that wants more thoughtfulness or less bulk. Seeming to acknowledge that, the show ends weirdly and abruptly, as if cut off in mid-thought by a proctor’s stopwatch.
But when the staging, singing and playing come together, whether in exuberance or sorrow, I was happily reminded of another musical about music that originated at the Atlantic: “The Band’s Visit.” (David Yazbek, that show’s songwriter, is credited here as a creative consultant.) In such moments — the hypnotic “Chan Chan,” the ear-wormy “El Cuarto de Tula,” the heartbroken “Veinte Años,” the gorgeous “Drume Negrita” — you really do feel the past harmonizing with the present. What Compay says is true: “Old songs kick up old feelings.” Even, as in the showstopping and, yes, scorching “Candela,” with a flute.
Buena Vista Social Club
Through Jan. 21 at the Atlantic Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours.