January 5, 2017
One way in which musical theater rises above and beyond straight drama in its delivery is that song is like a shortcut, overtaking the spoken word, when reaching out and touching its audience. Fans will be pleased to know that I Like It Like That is a new musical that really delivers.
Writers David Maldonado and Waddys Jáquez harness the power of the musicals formula, setting their show in New York City’s Spanish Harlem (El Barrio, as it is also known) in the 1970s, when the streets were violent, drug-infested and not safe; when the people of El Barrio were the oppressed, and the City of New York was the oppressor.
The musical, directed and choreographed by Jáquez, is about a close-knit family (Roberto, his wife, Carmen, their two sons, Juan and Carlos, and two daughters, China and Paula) and a community of extended family, steeped in Latino tradition, but with its existence and future put upon and threatened. Jam-packed with playful and potent song and dance numbers, it tells a simple yet poignant story.
Roberto’s record store, which sits in the shopfront underneath the tenement building his family lives in, is the hub of the community. Roberto, charmingly played by Domingo Quiñones, has to choose to speak out or keep silent as his children in turn give him sleepless nights. The eldest, streetwise Juan (Gilberto Velazquez, a heartthrob with a velvet voice), challenges his authority and is arrested and put in jail in a drug bust. China, his oldest daughter, the serious one (Caridad De La Luz injects a unique energy to the role), becomes an activist against her father’s will. But Roberto also has reasons to feel blessed: his second son, Carlos (Joseph “Quique” Gonzalez, appropriately understated), is an aspiring lawyer, and Roberto’s youngest daughter, Paula (Sofia Klimovsky is delightful), celebrates her Sweet 16. Robert’s wife, Carmen (solidly played by Shadida Fairuz) is his constant companion through thick and thin.
When the show opens, Juan insists that his baby sister Paula get off the streets, then promptly, distracted by the feisty and tricky vixen Maria Luisa (Chachi del Valle), gets caught holding drugs, and is hauled off to jail.
Certain references, such as one about Iris Chacón, might be lost on non-Latinos, but one most definitely does not have to be Latino to enjoy this production. With honest, joyful performances, it stokes a political furnace, and it provokes our social conscience. The show’s live, seven-piece band, led by Desmar Guervara, is onstage but out of sight behind the mid-stage backdrop, perform Roberto’s playlists, providing the story’s pulse and the soundtrack of the characters’ lives.
The script, while laced with Spanish, is primarily in English, with cleverly mounted English subtitles of the Spanish lyrics, like a brick in the wall of the tenement building, ensures that the story is not lost on anyone, as the songs seamlessly move the story along. This fusion of subtitles adds a lyrical flourish to Raul Abrego’s design, which projects documentary footage onto the backdrop wall to give an authenticity of time and place. Rocco Disanti’s projections also serve the tenement backdrop well with strategically placed open and shut windows on the upper floors to accent appearances, with a nod to Rossmery Altamonte and Angel Lopez for their robust and comedic performances of Tita and Rafa respectively. Their budding romance is as surprising and unlikely for the audience as it is for the other characters, and gives rise to some of the show’s funniest moments.
Some of the actors double up on characters with del Valle, to name one, also playing Bablilonia and La Lupe. This variety of characters showcases her impressive talent. Her solo as La Lupe of “El Carbonero” is a showstopper.
The show is a platform for wonderfully uplifting popular music of the period, such as its title song, “I Like It Like That,” which opens Act II, and which is just one of many. The infamous Tito Puente’s “Picadillo” and “Mambo Diablo” are also featured, as are original songs by various artists. The harmonies, rhythms, and high energy of the performers and the band are the show’s finest assets.
I Like It Like That reinforces the reasons why audiences love musicals. It ticks all the boxes.
The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre (304 W 47th St.) presents I Like It Like That through Jan. 29. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; at 9 p.m. Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday; matinees are at 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be purchased or by calling 212-581-9859 or by visiting www.ilikeitlikethat.com.