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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Beat Of The Barrio Latin Performers Bring Puerto Rican Icon Pedro Navaja To Life For American Audiences.
By Dianisela Reboyras Special Correspondent
June 16, 2004
After more than 20 years, Pedro Navaja's golden tooth is still causing quite a stir with the crowds.
Described as the barrio version of Mack the Knife, Navaja is one of the biggest icons in Puerto Rican theater's history and the central character in La Verdadera Historia de Pedro Navaja (The True Story of Pedro Navaja). The show makes its South Florida premiere in the Au-Rene Theatre at the Broward Center on Friday and Saturday.
The mythical character was created in the late '70s -- when salsa was the beat of the mean streets of Spanish Harlem and the Bronx -- by Panamanian singer-composer Ruben Blades, who included the single in his classic album Siembra. The musical impact of this seven-minute social commentary was immediate. Years later, the theatrical version created by Puerto Rican playwright and director Pablo Cabrera would become the most successful production in the history of Puerto Rican theater.
Featuring a cast of more than 30 actors, its most recent run on the island drew more than 20,000 theatergoers.
Performed in Spanish, Cabrera's hit musical is a dog-eat-dog story of gangsters, corrupt police, politicians and businessmen. Cabrera weaves into it the universal experiences of love, jealousy and deception.
"The story was inspired by John Gay's The Beggar's Opera," explains Cabrera. "It was adapted to reflect the reality of Puerto Rico, and has to do with the adventures of a group of people struggling to keep their heads above water."
The story, however, has nothing to do with Blades' Pedro. In this adaptation, which features music and arrangements by Pedro Rivera Toledo, a young dreamer (played by Raul Gonzalez, the Venezuelan co-host of Univision's morning show Despierta America) wins a grant and decides to create a telenovela set in 1952, with the establishment of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth as backdrop.
"All the characters play double roles," explains Cabrera. "The role of actors and the roles these actors play in the soap opera."
The musical was performed for the first time in the early '80s. Producer Lolyn Paz, who still hopes that some day Blades will join the cast, remembers the production's beginnings.
"When the show started, it was performed by young actors of the theater company Teatro del Sesenta, many of them students at the Drama Department of Puerto Rico University," she recalls. "After the play's success, and to attract more audiences, some of the best-known actors and singers of the time were invited to participate."
The current production ran for more than a year in Caracas and had successful engagements in Santo Domingo and New York, buoyed by some of the biggest names in contemporary tropical music.
Salsa singer Gilberto Santa Rosa says the title role has been an enriching experience. This is his fourth time in the cast, and the first in which he plays the lead.
"I started playing smaller roles," jokes the Puerto Rican artist. "I was first a lamp, then the telephone, and finally graduated to playing this great icon."
While Santa Rosa is accustomed to be the center of attention when he is onstage, in Pedro Navaja he has to share the spotlight with renowned theater stars, like Sully Diaz, who in October starred in La Reina, La Lupe, a musical about the life of the famed Cuban salsa singer.
"My ego could not be affected, [simply] because I don't suffer with that ailment," says a humble Santa Rosa. "I'm a singer before anything else, but when such an opportunity arises, I'm on it. I'm really enjoying it."
Santa Rosa is enjoying it so much, he is rearranging his concert tour dates so he can continue with the show in Orlando, New York and some Latin American countries.
Other stars in this production, which has remained largely intact since its Puerto Rican debut, include singers Melina Leon and Elvis Crespo.
According to Paz, the only variation is the adaptation of some words and typical phrases used in the Miami and South Florida areas, without losing the show's Puerto Rican perspective.
"It is very compelling because everything that occurred in the drama is still happening today," says Paz. "There will be always a Pedro Navaja that clashes with the government, corruption, money and poverty."
Dianisela Reboyras is a Puerto Rican journalist living in Miami.
Staff Writer Magaly Morales contributed to this report.
IF YOU GO\ The musical La Verdadera Historia de Pedro Navaja (The True Story of Pedro Navaja) will be performed at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Broward Center's Au-Rene Theatre, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $20-$90. Call 954-462-0222 or Ticketmaster (561-966-3309, 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885).
SINGING FOR HIS SUPPER: Salsa singer-actor Gilberto Santa Rosa plays the title role in La Verdadera Historia de Pedro Navaja at the Broward Center. Photo/Eugeino Luis-Maru Seda