We never seem to get enough tragic love stories. From Orpheus and Eurydice and Heloise and Abelard through Romeo and Juliet and the Sharks and the Jets, the thread winds through time immemorial. Set in Puerto Rico during the Spanish conquest, Temple of the Souls, an energetic new musical running as part of the New York Musical Festival, brings us the romance between a conquistador’s teenage daughter and a fugitive son of the subjugated local Taíno people.
The ancestral Taíno set the scene with a rousing musical/dance number that declares, in one of the show’s several Webber-esque melodies, that “Here we Taínos belong.” Then a modern-day guide leads rain-parka-wearing tourists through the titular Temple of Souls, a real place where according to legend the souls of slaughtered and suicidal Taíno ancestors still reside. The guide’s introduction gives us some needed historical background that could be presented less awkwardly – and without distorting history for rhetorical effect by telling us that Columbus landed with “his Spanish army.”
As the ungainly prologue gives way to the story proper, we meet the Spanish settlement’s flighty young ladies, callous young men, and First Family: Don Severo (Danny Bolero), his Disney-princess daughter Amada (Noellia Hernandez), and his “mate” Nana (Lorraine Velez). Because of Nana’s background – she’s a former Taíno princess herself – Don Severo has never married her, but she has cared for Amada like a mother and carries a painful (but easy to guess) secret.
Guario (Andres Quintero), a young fugitive Taíno, wanders into the Spanish settlement seeking for “Nanichi” – what would be called, in the cheesy Disney-esque world the show seems to fitfully aspire to, his “true love.” Fortunately Quintero, in a nuanced and highly focused performance, conveys the sincerity that the sometimes trite or clumsy dialogue and lyrics might have denied him. His introductory number, “What Have I Done,” has a lovely melody and he sings it beautifully.
Meanwhile Hernandez skillfully charges Amada with just as much charm, so that I could happily accept her saccharine-romantic yearning for love, even with hokey lyrics like “I’m searching for that someone.” Tiny-voiced in her first number, she audibly and visibly matures into a full-blown tragic heroine by the end. When she flees the colorful Fiesta de San Juan to meet Guario in the El Yunque Forest, where sappiness seems appropriate, their duet “I’m Not Dreaming” is beautifully composed and sung, with a welcome reprise sung in Spanish.
The story flutters nervously along two parallel tracks, one of direct impact, reflecting the real butchery and horror of the conquest, the other of semi-cartoonish family fare. Book, music, and lyrics are a collective effort that began with a poem by the late Puerto Rican-American poet Anita Velez-Mitchell inspired by a visit to the real Temple of the Souls. Developed into a musical by her granddaughters Anika Paris and Lorca Peress along with Dean Landon, it has received several awards, and the NYFM production is polished, technically accomplished, well-sung, and mostly well-acted.
Underneath the show’s romantic-tragedy clichés courses a raw story of love, racism, and ethnic cleansing. If you can swallow the former, you’ll find it’s worth this plunge into the dark rain forest of colonial history. And you’ll likely leave with more than one of its catchy melodies in your head. The last two of its five NYMF performances are July 22 and 23. Visit the New York Musical Festival website for tickets and the show’s website for more details.