Tuesday, May 28

La Bamba: A Musical – Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Danceathon with an infusion of Latin America and traditional rock n roll, is entertaining enough to excuse its style over substance in this bilingual jukebox musical.

La Bamba introduces us to Sofia (Ines Fernandez), a young Latino woman with an upbringing immersed in Latin American heritage enriched with colourful cultural traditions. Sofia narrates us through her younger years as she pursues her dreams of becoming the next big Latino music star which is abruptly hindered by industry execs who insist that she changes her name, and water down her cultural identity to make her more acceptable to American audiences.  

The musical is inspired by Richard Steven Valenzuela, better known as Ritchie Valens, whose quick rise to 50s fame with the Mexican folk inspired ‘La Bamba’, made him a pioneer in terms of blending Spanish language with traditional rock n roll. Valens’s tragic death at the tender age of 17, alongside Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, is marked as a culturally significant event known as, ‘The Day the Music Died’.

Writer Paul Morrissey incorporates on the surface parallels between the lives of Sofia and Valens; both young self-taught musicians, born and raised in Pacoima, who despite existing in different eras, are expected to change their cultural identity to progress in the music industry. Sofia’s coercion into changing her name and toning down her Latino roots is questionable in the modern times. The Latin explosion in the early noughties saw an avalanche of musical artists diversifying the international pop landscape, and so the notion that Sofia would be forced to change her whole identity is questionable.  

Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

This shredding of authenticity and identity is central to the story, which is threaded together by a selection of songs which do nothing to compliment the arc of Sofia’s journey. What the song list does successfully do is showcase the fantastic voice of Fernandez and Stefani Ariza (who gives a lovely performance as Sofia’s mum Elena), and the energetic, talented ensemble who dance their socks off.  Graziano Di Prima and Erica Da Silva’s choreography nicely captures the various urban dance styles in a highly entertaining display, backed by the brilliant live band who don’t shy away from the pulsating Latino beats and its familiar rhythmic patterns.

The best moments of emotion and storytelling are shown through the dance which makes up for the script which lack depth. Sofia maintains a Disneyesque upbeat air despite the challenges faced, including coming to terms with the death of her Papa, Ricardo (played by Strictly Come Dancing’s Pasha Kovalev) who is fondly remembered during the traditional Day of the Dead festival, and the pressures of fame, which bring feelings of isolation, loneliness and the loss of self.  Many themes and topical matters are squeezed in and attempts are made to tackle, such as the Trump administration and the COVID pandemic; however, the lack of characterisation fails to demonstrate the true impact these significant events have on the characters and their community.    

Kovalev and The Wanted’s, Siva Kaneswaran are given top billing, and no doubt the musical’s box office draw, disappointing then that the skills that made them famous aren’t showcased to the best of their ability. Despite delivering a convincing depiction of a loving father, fans want to see more dancing from Kovalev, not, as for many scenes, appearing in the background giving his best range of emotional reactions.  Unfortunately, Kaneswaran’s portrayal of Sofia’s best friend, Mateo, is at times awkward and unconvincing, with his redeeming quality remains his singing.

Directed by Ray Roderick, La Bamba delivers an entertaining evening of musical theatre, its several renditions of the song ‘La Bamba’ is a joy to listen to, (sung beautifully by Grace Hope, as young Sofia), and the energy and enthusiasm is undeniable. This winter dance party show will certainly warm you up.

Catch La Bamba at The Grand Theatre until Saturday 25th November 2023, tickets available here, https://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/event/la-bamba

Reviewer: Gill Lewis

Reviewed: 21st November 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.