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Cuban Missile Jazz-Hands: Thirteen Days at the Arcola Theatre (****)

Grimeborn, the Arcola Theatre’s alternative and fringe opera festival, closed with new musical Thirteen Days this year, Alexander S. Bermange’s musical rendition of the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the world purportedly came as close as it ever has to nuclear annihilation. There’s still some work to be done to make this piece fully come together, but it’s got some great moments for now. At the Arcola Theatre.

As history buffs will know, the Cold War very nearly went hot in October 1962. President Kennedy had been rebuffed in a flawed invasion of Cuba, which had just had a communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, and thus was forced to take a hardline stance when spy planes discovered potential missile launch sites on the island. The following embargoes and lines being drawn very nearly pushed Khrushchev (the Russian premier) to force a military conflict, although the recognition that both men reached (that an armed conflict would probably be nuclear and equate mutually assured destruction) brought them both to the negotiating table and back from the brink.

What Bermange manages to capture beautifully, and what makes this musical so successful, is that this isn’t just a dry recounting of history and fact – the songs for both Kennedy and Khrushchev humanise both of the leaders excellently, and adding in crowd pieces gives a wonderful snapshot of public perception during these tense times. The problem is his decision to try and run a parallel romantic subplot between a Russian, a Cuban and an American: not a terrible idea, but there are so many stories to tell that this one doesn’t get enough time to flourish properly – nor, potentially, should it.

It’s not that the idea of having a classic musical plot (boy, girl, jealous other boy) is a bad one, but it doesn’t work in this context – the political deals are so complex and staged so unrealistically that trying to shoehorn in three real characters feels odd. They either need to be more involved in the history or uninvolved, not sandwiched in between as they are now – their actions have no effect on the plot, which makes their scenes wholly extraneous – and the ending, while fascinating, is pretty unsatisfying for any romantics that were hanging on.

However, that’s really the only criticism that can be justly levelled at this new piece – the songs are excellent, the themes (such as the militaristic “Missiles”) carried through beautifully as the tension rises, and there are some stand-out crowd numbers, including the wonderful second-act opener “This Could Be the Week” and the more upbeat “Another Day in Havana”. The duets and three-part harmonies between the romantic leads are hauntingly successful, as are the torch songs, although they stand out more for musical excellence than any particular line or lyric. The decision to have few spoken lines (in the operatic tradition), again, suits the piece’s political and social plotlines, but not the romantic one.

As to this production – a slight niggle here as it’s marred somewhere in between fringe musical production and rehearsed performance. Matthew Gould’s direction is slick and fun, with the crowd numbers pleasing especially with simple, easy choreography that makes for striking imagery. However, the overall production needs either more money and a balance between a naturalistic set and the projection-based work already in place, or further paring down – at the moment it feels a mite confused. Otherwise, the performers are decent (with some big names scattered in there), although volume issues abound.

This is a piece screaming for a full-scale production – and, as it stands, popping down into the Landor Theatre or the Arts Theatre should surely follow. It needs a bit of refinement, including decisions about how to make all of the subplots work. Either way, Bermange’s musical skills are undeniable.


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