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Theatre in Review: I Like It Like That (Puerto Rican Traveling Theater)

Shadia Fairuz, Ana Isabelle, Tito Nieves. Photo: Marisol Diaz.

Audiences at jukebox musicals can be remarkably forgiving; mostly they just want to hear the songs they know and love. So it is with I Like It Like That, which draws on the salsa hits of the 1970s and stars Tito Nieves, sometimes called "the Pavarotti of salsa." Clearly, the audience at the performance I attended cared little about David Maldonado and Waddys Jáquez's book, a crude piece of construction that sets several plot lines in motion only to let them die on the vine without adequate resolution. Nor did they seem to be bothered by Jáquez's rather basic choreography and performances so broad that you could probably make them out several blocks away.

Instead, they got what they came to see: the opportunity to experience Nieves live, some sizzling musical performances under the direction of Desmar Guevara, and a script that takes a mildly rosy view of life in el barrio in the 1970s; they audibily sighed with pleasure as the script name-checked signs of those times, such as the Valencia Bakery, El Corso nightclub, the political action group the Young Lords and its newspaper, Palante, and that indelible, famous-for-being-famous television personality Iris Chacón. For the largely middle-aged Latino audience, I Like It Like That provides something like an authentic time-travel experience.

I would respectfully suggest that audiences be paid the compliment of getting a cohesive musical play with a story that makes sense and songs that propel the action and illuminate the characters, but these amenities are not on hand this time around. The book follows a number of characters, many of them members of the same family. There's the young man who gets framed in a drug deal and is sent to prison; when he returns, will he fall back into the clutches of the sultry temptress who got him into trouble in the first place? There's one sister's upcoming quinceañera and another sister's attempts at organizing the community, as well as a brother who sees law school as the best way to get up and get out of the neighborhood altogether. To the extent that I Like It Like That has a central conflict, it has to do with a community torn between fleeing to the suburbs or staying put and making the neighborhood a better place to live. But there are far too many distractions available to take the stage, beginning with the frisky older couple, whose surprisingly uninhibited romance was a source of audience delight.

Mostly, there are the songs, by the likes of Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, and Tito Puente, combined with new songs by various writers. The latter tend to help the plot along; the others often have barely a nodding acquaintance with the action onstage. They are, however, delivered with brio by an an excellent band and the cast, which includes Joseph "Quique" González, Shadia Fairuz, and Chachi Del Valle. The irresistable title song, in particular, will haunt you for days.

In most respects, I Like It Like That looks good. Raul Abrego's set surrounds the action with brick walls that open up to show other locations; it also serves as a screen for Rocco DiSanti's projections, a parade of stunning images, most of them in black-and-white, of New York in the down-and-dirty 1970s, as well as English translations of the Spanish lyrics. The lighting, by Lucrecia Briceño and G. Benjamin Swope, has plenty of flash, color, and pizzazz, especially during the musical numbers. Julian Evans' solid sound design provides clarity for the voices without being overwhelmingly loud. The costumes, by Hochi Asiatico, feel reasonably accurate to the period.

There's nothing wrong with a show like this, as long as you know what you're getting into. However, it's hard not to feel that a fine opportunity has been squandered; what would it take to put together a cogent musical celebration with storylines that really went somewhere and characters that were more than familiar types? (In retrospect, the so-so early Lin-Manuel Miranda effort, In the Heights, seems in comparison like a masterpiece of musical theatre, not to mention the lively, touching On Your Feet!) In any case, I suspect that this show will entertain everyone in its target audience, who have already decided that they like it like that. - David Barbour

(7 October 2016)

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