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Actor-Dancer Brings Ethnic Tales to Life

David Gonzalez and the band of keyboardist Larry Harlow perform Caribbean fables that enrapture children and adults at Irvine Barclay.


Ask any first-grader: Nothing enlivens a story like music. "Sofrito!," the New York-based, kid-friendly program of music and story, made the most of that connection Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre with its lively mix of tales and tunes from actor-dancer David Gonzalez and the six-piece Latin Legends Band of keyboardist Larry Harlow.

But "Sofrito!," like music and storytelling at large, is not just for tykes. Gonzalez spun yarns that reflected his Caribbean heritage--Afro-Cuban creation myths, a Puerto Rican tale about the magic of the royal palms and a ditty from his formative years in the Bronx in which a tree is made to sing--that captivated adult imaginations as well as kids'.

And the same devices that can make children's stories so much fun--repeated lines, descriptive movement and audience involvement--helped adults get in on the fun.

Gonzalez is an animated storyteller who paces the stage and makes use of a full-range of physical expressions to keep attention high. Dramatic pauses saw him freeze like a statue. His face alternately expressed joy, puzzlement or wonder. When he sang about the program's namesake, the Caribbean mother sauce of peppers, onions, tomatoes and spices, he had everyone in the crowd on his feet singing, "Stir it up! Mix it up! Spice it up!" along with him.

Adding to the magic was an array of audible effects from Harlow, percussionist Wilson "Chembo" Corniel and drummer Bobby Sanabria. Funniest of these occurred in one story in which characters slept, and the entire band contributed snores, mumbles and peeps. Often, certain musical phrases became touchstones, bringing continuity and the kind of predictability that, as anyone who reads to children knows, makes these kinds of stories so much fun.

The musical selections served as interludes between the tales, linking them with rhythm and sound. Not all of it was Latin in origin. Harlow and company frequently employed the hip-hop beats of the day as tools of involvement, getting the audience to clap along with the backbeats as they emphasized various aspects of the narrative.

The highlight of the musical presentation was the play of guitarist Yomo Toro, whose excursions on the Puerto Rican cuatro--a stubby, guitar with a harmonized tone similar to a 12-string guitar--rang with authority. Toro constructed a solo medley of tunes ranging from "The Mexican Hat Dance" to "In the Mood" that had children and adults giggling with recognition.

Much of the presentation was bilingual, with Spanish phrases followed in rapid-fire succession by English translations. Still, Gonzalez was so expressive, verbally and physically, that even the most "linguistically challenged" members of the audience (as Gonzalez put it) could find meaning even before the English was spoken.

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