by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday May 25, 2017

The ensemble of "Arrabal."
The ensemble of "Arrabal."  (Source:Evgenia Eliseeva)

What is easily the most stunning new musical to play on a Boston stage in some time is "Arrabal," Sergio Trujillo's piercing dance musical that revisits the dark period in Argentine history during the 1970s and 1980s when the country was ruled by military junta led by the brutal General Jorge Rafael Videla.

During that period some 30,000 Argentine citizens (called the desaparecidos) were rounded up and vanished, leaving behind families who grieved with anger. For years those families honored those taken with public displays where family members wore photos of their missing loved ones were worn on their chests. Called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, they brought their plight to world attention.

"Arrabal" tells the story of one such family, and does so with the emotional wallop of an Amoldovar movie. John Weidman's book weaves magical realism with that of the grittier kind as it tells the story of Arrabal, a child raised in sorrow: while just an infant her father was arrested, tortured and shot in the head by Videla's thugs in 1976. Like many of those rounded up, Rodolfo was a political activist who proudly wears the bold insignia of the Movimiento Peronista Montonero -- an anti-Government group -- on his white t-shirt, which, as the musical unfolds, becomes an icon that connects the living with the dead. In some ways, "Arrabal" is an exquisitely crafted ghost story.

Micaela Spina in "Arrabal."
Micaela Spina in "Arrabal."  (Source: Evgenia Eliseeva)

It is also, joyfully, a tango musical where the dance is integral to the story telling it in a way that brings to mind the works of such choreographers as Jerome Robbins and Matthew Bourne. Co-choreographers Sergio Trujillo and Julio Zurita seem to re-invent the classic dance form from moment to moment -- the versatility of their choreography astounds, as does the company performing it who not only perform with breathtaking precision but also beautifully embody the characters they play.

Trujillo's direction never flinches from depicting the violence that Rudolfo endured. His arrest, torture and murder is vividly depicted in a stylized sequence that occurs early on and haunts the remainder of the show, which follows Arrabal's journey when Rudolfo's best friend El Puma (Carlos Rivarola) ask her to visit the milonga (a tango club) that he runs with his wife Berta (Valeria Celurso). Arrabal does not know the true nature of her father's death and El Puma wants to tell her, but just can't seem to find a way.

Meanwhile the naive Arrabal must contend with the seedy, sexual world of the milonga, which includes being pursued by the club's hunk Juan (Juan Cupini) and deal with his jealous girlfriend Nicole (Soledad Buss). This gives the central part of the narrative a sensual, even dangerous edge. There's always the sense that Arrabal safety can be violated at any moment be it by one of the thuggish men that hang at the club or by Nicole, who takes her to a sex party with hopes of seducing her.

Micaela Spina and Juan Cupini in "Arrabal."
Micaela Spina and Juan Cupini in "Arrabal."  (Source: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Arrabal, played to innocent perfection by Micaela Spina, brings to mind Maria from "West Side Story" as she maneuvers her way through El Puma's dark world; and the show itself also recalls that classic dance musical in its fluid, electrifying choreography. Yet what's most striking about "Arrabal" is how the dance serves Weidman's complicated narrative, which not only tells its titular character's story but also places it in a larger historical context without any dialogue.

Trujillo is helped immeasurably in this end by his designers: Riccardo Hernandez's two-tiered set captures the sexy, seedy atmosphere of the milonga, which bleeds into the house with table seating for some audience members. Peter Nigrini's projections add to the immersive experience and provide context; as does Vincent Colbert's striking lighting and Peter McBoyle's seamless sound design. The steamy atmosphere couldn't be better realized.

What's key to the show's success is the gorgeous score by Gustavo Santaolalla, which, like the choreography itself, offers an endless variation on the tango. Haunting, sensual and expressively played by Santaolalla's band Orquesta Bajofonderos, the music never ceases to amaze. Not since "Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" played the same theater a year-and-a-half ago has a show come together with as much panache as this one. The spectacle and searing drama of "Arrabal" make for gorgeous, thought-provoking theater.

"Arrabal" continues through June 18, 2017, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].