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Live Reviews

Paul Simon: Music From The Capeman
April 4, 2008

By Ernest Barteldes

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, NY

On the first night of what is scheduled to be a month-long celebration of Paul Simon at BAM, bandleader Oscar Hernandez conducted his Spanish Harlem Orchestra in a rendition of the music from Simon's The Capeman, the 1998 musical about the life of Salvador Agron (better known as “The Capeman"), a young member of the Puerto Rican Vampires gang who spent 20 years in jail for murder before receiving gubernatorial death row clemency from Gov. Rockefeller.


Listening to the songs unfold on stage, it is understandable to see why the original musical (which starred Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades a decade ago) failed on Broadway: the theme and the liberal use of language is a bit is a bit too harsh for pre-Rent audiences (the accusation that Simon was glamorizing gang life might have scared away some audiences as well), and the mix of Latin and doo-wop is not always that easy to digest, especially when one is looking for a fun night on the town.


The show opened with a short a cappella selection of '50s tunes performed by Little Anthony & The Imperials, which included classics from the era like “Tears On My Pillow” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop.” The Spanish Harlem Orchestra then took the stage with their trademark intro, quickly leading to “Born In Puerto Rico,” an emotional and festive tune about the pride that many natives of the land feel toward their beautiful Caribbean island. The mood soon gets darker as Agron's mother moves to New York, where the family lives in the projects.


The music is interrupted to show an actual TV news report on Agron's arrest, which includes the brazen remarks made famous by local tabloids that he didn't care if “he burned or not,” and that he felt like killing the reporter who was asking those questions.


The set closed with the the highly emotional “Adios Hermanos,” where Agron reflects on the fact that he is facing the electric chair, singing that “a Puerto Rican kid can die every day” in the streets of New York without consequence, while the death of “one white kid” is enough to cause a giant commotion. Another highlight was the touching “Can I Forgive Him,” in which the mother of one of the victims (played by Luba Mason, who originated the role) questions the Christian religion she was raised in and the nature of forgiveness itself.


The second act depicting Agron's prison life began with "Espérame En El Cielo," a tune from the regular repertoire of The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and moved on to tell the story of his redemption: a model inmate, he learned poetry, graduated from college and was set free in 1979, never to commit a violent act again.


One of the best moments came when current New York Dolls