On a visit to Cuba several years ago, before the death of Fidel Castro, a rather astonishing public sculpture caught my eye. It was a giant oar, and was placed (as part of the Havana Art Biennial) in a prominent position along the Malecon, the great seawall overlooking the Caribbean.

The meaning of that oar could not be denied. And it came to mind again Thursday night as “La Havana Madrid,” Sandra Delgado’s play-with-music opened in a Teatro Vista production at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf, under the fluid, easily engaging direction of Cheryl Lynn Bruce. That is because the very first sound and image in the production is of waves crashing against the shore. And that shore could be either the “homeland” being left behind, or the shore of a new destination – with all the complicated feelings of wistfulness and loss, as well as an expectation of new beginnings.

‘LA HAVANA MADRID’
Highly recommended
When: Through May 28
Where: Teatro Vista at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf, 1700 N. Halsted
Tickets: $15 – $45
Info: www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Maruja (Phoebe González) meets Henry (Tommy Rivera-Vega) in Teatro Vista’s “La Havana Madrid,” at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)

So be advised: You might easily be seduced by the notion of La Havana Madrid — the nightclub that drew Latino immigrants to its second floor home on Belmont and Sheffield throughout the 1960s, where the irresistible music of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Colombia  (and finally the Americanized “cousin,” salsa), were played by a live band, just as they are in this production. But the real goal of Delgado (who also plays the all-seeing hostess and singer at the club) is to chronicle the many different and widely unfamiliar layers of Latino immigrant life and history in Chicago as they’ve evolved over the past seven decades or so. And she does so in a way that would make Studs Terkel, this city’s fabled oral historian, smile — by capturing the stories of ordinary people who turn out to be anything but ordinary, even as they are emblematic of the struggles and conflicted feelings of immigrants.

Things get started in 1961 as 13-year-old Maria (the utterly beguiling Krystal Ortiz), is sent from Cuba to the Chicago area along with her two siblings as part of the Peter Pan airlift sponsored by the Catholic Welfare Bureau to provide temporary refuge from the Cuban Revolution to children. Maria starts out living with a foster family in Lincolnwood, where breakfasts of Shredded Wheat remind her of the food fed to animals back home, where she misses her mother, and where she discovers The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Taken to La Havana Madrid by her aunt and uncle, she, like many others, thrives on the nostalgia.

Next comes the story of a marriage of two young people who meet in Colombia (and bear some resemblance to Delgado’s own parents’ story). Maruja (in an enchanting turn by Phoebe Gonzalez), is a prim and proper, if ultimately adventurous Catholic school girl (perfectly dressed in Elsa Hiltner’s costumes) who catches the eye of the shy but spirited Henry (Tommy Rivera-Vega in an immensely engaging performance). Henry comes to Illinois to work in a Zenith factory, and after much separation asks Maruja to marry him. A very funny bi-national wedding is performed by cooperative priests before she is allowed to get on the plane to Chicago, and La Havana Madrid becomes the couple’s home-away-from-home once she arrives.

The story of Carlos (played here with fire and fight by Donovan Diaz), is inspired by the life of the prominent Latino photographer Carlos Flores, the son of Puerto Rican immigrant parents. Troubled in school, and taunted by gangs of white guys (also from immigrant families) for being dark-skinned and foreign, he finally is sent to a school for “hardcore kids” on the grounds of the Argonne National Laboratory in Lamont. There, a teacher gives him a camera and free film, and he finds himself —- and his calling — and grows into a passionate organizer enraged by the city’s “urban renewal” plans that he dubs the “urban removal” of Puerto Ricans pushed ever westward.

Carpacho (in an exuberant portrayal by Marvin Quijada), is the man who flees New York for Chicago but feels forever pursued by immigration officials (the play features several vivid, all too timely scenes about this). His passion for music becomes his salvation. Tony, inspired by successful radio host Tony Quintano (and played here with just the right confidence by Mike Oquendo), is another man saved by music, who became the owner of La Havana Madrid later in the ’60s. And Myrna (a vivid turn by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), is the hair stylist who competes in a pageant at the Aragon Ballroom where she passionately responds to the question “Why are you proud to be Puerto Rican?,” only to wake up the next day to see her neighborhood explode in the Humboldt Park riots of 1966 — a siege skillfully evoked by a brutal tango choreographed by William Carlos Angulo.

Set designer Ashley Ann Woods has transformed the intimate 1700 Theater into a cabaret space where Roberto “Carpacho” Marin leads his six piece band (bass, piano, trombone, timbales and congas). And you guessed it: By the end, both actors and audience are on the dance floor.

Marvin Quijada plays Carpacho in Teatro Vista’s “La Havana Madrid,” at The 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)