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Theater  Review: Ghost Waltz

Nathalie Peña-Comas, Cástulo Guerra and Quetzal Guerrero in Ghost Waltz. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

History is littered with brilliant, talented people who never attained the fame of their celebrity contemporaries. Whether through circumstances of birth, such as era, location, politics, race, religion or gender, plenty of artists are practically unknown, yet just as deserving of recognition.

Ghost Waltz, from the Latino Theater Company, gives Mexican violinist and composer Juventino Rosas (Latin soul singer Quetzal Guerrero) his due. Rosas composed a waltz you know and probably assumed was by Johann Strauss: Sobre las Olas (Over the Waves). In fact, the play, by Oliver Mayer, acknowledges this continued misconception via the ruminations of Professor Zeiss of the Mexico City Conservatory (Argentine actor Cástulo Guerra).

Eduardo Robledo and Quetzal Guerrero in Ghost Waltz. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.

The dreamlike nature of Ghost Waltz perfectly suits its half-factual, half-imagined time in Mexico City and New Orleans. Rosas’ father Don Jesus (actor/composer Eduardo Robledo) dies in the first act, dons a mask and continues to weigh in on his son’s life.

In a late-1800s Crescent City, that son meets King of Ragtime Scott Joplin (pianist extraordinaire Ric’key Pageot), Joplin’s beautiful companion Bethena (dancer and violinist Ariel Brown) and voodoo queen Marie Laveau (a slinky Monte Escalante). Rosas pines for opera star Angela Peralta, the Mexican Nightingale and the first Mexican to perform at La Scala (Dominican soprano Nathalie Peña-Comas), whose exquisite voice adds to the play’s ethereal quality. The set extends this spirit, with draped fabric and a high tower where the Nightingale sings.

Ric’key Pageot in Ghost Waltz. Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography.

Through the Latino Theater Company’s program Circle of Imaginistas, playwright Mayer developed this profound world premiere, a treatise on death, life’s purpose and music. In death is life, in life, death, he tells us. Ghosts watch the living, as long as someone alive still thinks of them; we are all ghosts. Scott Joplin extolls “the privilege of seeing and being seen.” Music connects us, as it connects the onstage ghosts; music is also an asset to be protected.

These philosophical themes are beautifully presented in Ghost Waltz. Opening Act 2, Marie Lavau notes that songs are “sandhills against the shore over time.” Those who create the music are “silent witnesses to the lives of others making the same mistakes”; Joplin notes that “the ancestors are watching.” There are several references to living “between the notes.”

Ariel Brown and Monte Escalante in Ghost Waltz. Photo by Grettel Cortes.

Resurrecting Rosas, whose contributions have been ignored by a whitewashed history, is a noble cause that never veers into the sanctimonious or saccharine. Mayer and the production team present their characters, real and imagined, as fully developed human beings, whether ghosts or not. Ghost Waltz is a breathtaking theater experience first, a learning experience second.

Director Alberto Barboza guides the stellar cast through a dreamscape, lifting the multiple talents of each. At stage left, musicians led by music director Alberto López show their gifts and range through multiple musical styles.

In a British touch, lovely bound copies of the script are for sale at the concession counter.

Ghost Waltz runs through June 2 at Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring Street downtown. Discounted parking is available at 545 S. Main Street, directly behind the theater. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 4:00. Tickets are $48 ($10 on Thursdays) and can be purchased here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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