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Raíces production of 'La Lupe' captures raw spirit of Latin soul singer

You need to hear "La Lupe."

And because grainy YouTube clips and forays into the mostly forgotten catalogue of this irrepressible Cuban singer can only prove so rewarding, the best way to do that is to get to Manny Fried Playhouse sometime before June 10.

There you'll find the similarly irrepressible Melinda Capeles channeling the rasping, cackling, impossibly energetic and borderline unhinged spirit of La Lupe in Carmen Rivera's biographical musical "La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny." Victoria Pérez directs this Raíces Theatre Company production with her usual skill and attention to detail.

It is an extraordinary performance, dripping with vitality and spirit. If it is perhaps a bit raw and unpolished, so much the better: So was its subject.

The show, which charts the singer's rise from rural Cuba to her fleeting stardom in New York and her long fall from grace, is not perfect. It leaves major gaps in our understanding of La Lupe's relationships and motivations, crying out for less reliance on mystical elements and more character development.

But it provides a perfect platform for Capeles to perform the show's most important task: To let audiences feel some flicker of the raw energy, unique spirit and infamous temper those lucky enough to see La Lupe in person must have felt when she was in her prime.

Capeles, supported by a gifted cast and an impressively tight trio of musicians, more than delivers. In her performance, complete with jangling bracelets, chest-beating, tossed shoes and ecstatic dancing, we watch the singer rise far above her circumstances and then sink beneath them – all the while fighting her way into clubs, onto the airwaves and into the hearts of those lucky enough to see her perform.

The play, following the template of most jukebox shows, charts the life and career of La Lupe with frequent interruptions for her to sing her hits. It begins in the south of Cuba, where a young La Lupe abandons the safe career plan plotted by her parents to pursue a career in singing.

Then it's on to the clubs of Havana, then to New York, and then to a meteoric rise that brought her into collaborations with Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, to major New York clubs and into the homes of thousands of listeners.

Along the way, Capeles gives irresistible renditions of La Lupe's most memorable songs – "Que Te Pedi," "La Tirana," "Puro Teatro" – whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

She is supported by the ever-amusing Rolando Martín Gómez as Tito Puente and others, along with Steve Brachmann as Dick Cavett and assorted gringos, Maria Pérez-Gómez, Dewel Pérez and Smirna Mercedes-Pérez.

A simple set by Rolando E. Gómez and costumes by Alejandro G. Gómez and Lissete DeJesus complete the picture. The band, led by percussionist Joey González and featuring Hansel Herrera Deschapelles on trumpet and Jeremías Soto on keys, is one of the tighter groups to play on a Buffalo theater stage recently and sets a high bar for other local productions.

Raíces, since it began regularly producing a few seasons ago, has proven itself an essential new voice on Buffalo's extraordinarily diverse theater scene. This production is perhaps its best yet.

Theater Review

3 stars (out of four)

"La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny" runs through June 10 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $25 to $30. Visit raicestheatrecompany.com.

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