For me, a trip to Cuba earlier this month would not have been complete without experiencing the Tropicana nightclub in Havana. Its cabaret show is considered among the top three shows in the world (by people who decide these kinds of things, I guess). After seeing it, I believe it.
For openers, Havana’s Tropicana nightclub shouldn’t be confused with the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. I stayed at the Tropicana on The Strip once. I loved it. What I remember most, in addition to the hotel’s beautiful collection of tropical birds, was the mirrors on the ceiling above the beds. For me, a first. And another story for another time, perhaps.
People still arrive at Havana’s Tropicana in those beautiful vintage cars from the 1950s and ’60s everyone thinks of when they think of Cuba. Also tour buses. But it’s the classic cars that make people feel they’ve just stepped out of a time machine.
You’re handed a (Guantanamera Cristales) cigar at the door, if you’re a man. Women are given flowers. Champagne is poured at the tables (very slowly, for some reason). Later, a bottle of Cuban rum arrives at each table. Still later, cans of Coke. Cuba Libres are mixed by the customers themselves.
The real show is the show. Backed by huge orchestra with conga drums up front and strings to the side, the cast, according to the guide books, features 200 dancers, many of them fully clothed at different points during the evening. Actually, there is no nudity. The Tropicana is now owned by the government. Fidel used to bring his guests here.
Sitting on the aisle, Ginny got to bust one or two of her best moves with one of the dancers who hung around our table long enough for the three of us to take a selfie.
There’s no special scenery in this show. And aside from the lighting, no special effects. But lots of talent. Four or five male and female singers are insanely good!
One production number flows seamlessly into another nearly nonstop for two hours. It is spectacular! If Desi Arnaz had appeared in a tux and straw hat, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It’s like that.
Supposedly the show changes every 15 days, but as a whole, I doubt that it looks much different than it did back in 1959, when American celebrities (and mobsters) visited the Tropicana. And that’s the fun of it. It is what a nightclub should — and used to be. Exotic, exciting and fun. They don’t really exist like this in very many places anymore. Except here. Not even in Las Vegas.
Entertainers like Liberace and Josephine Baker have been a part of the show over the years. Nat King Cole was so popular he was asked to return the next season. He did, but only on the condition that he be allowed to stay at Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba, something he had been denied during his first visit because of the color of his skin. Just as he and others had done in Las Vegas, he helped break the “color barrier” in Cuba. Today, there is a statue of Nat King Cole in the hotel’s museum which doubles as a bar.
Cuba loves its cabaret shows. I heard someone say there are more than 200 of them throughout the island. But the Tropicana is king, and considered nothing less than a national treasure by the locals. It’s as simple as that.