by Samuel L. Leiter
It’s been a long time since I saw an audience enjoy itself at a show as much as the one at the first press preview for I Like it Like That, a sketchily written, broadly acted, but rousingly joyful, jukebox musical reminiscence of life in New York’s El Barrio, once known as Spanish Harlem, back in the early 1970s. This easy-to-like, even love, show had everyone tapping their toes, snapping their fingers, clapping their hands, and moving any other spare body parts available every time one of the show’s treasure chest of popular salsa (mostly) tunes came bouncing toward them. The audience seemed to be seeing its own or its families’ memories come alive in every local reference, sometimes even saying something out loud just before the actors themselves did.
Even if you’re not a Nuyorican and have never visited the streets, tenements, and bodegas of El Barrio, you won’t be able to resist the waves of over 30 great songs (by Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ismael Rivera, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, and so on) built into the play’s fabric to relate (clumsily, but who cares) to plot developments. It’s performed by a vibrant cast, led by Tito Nieves, a Latino recording star of the 1980s and 90s known as “el Pavarotti de la salsa,” whose greatest hit, the defiantly upbeat “I Like it Like That,” gives the show its name. It begins the second act with such infectious energy that you won’t be able to resist joining in the choruses.
A handful of songs are in English (including “Daddy’s Little Girl” and “Bang Bang”); most of the Spanish ones—a good many by director/choreographer/book writer (the last with David Maldonado) Waddys Jáquez—have English surtitles. These, unfortunately, are hard to read, but, just as with several passages of untranslated dialogue, the situations and behavior are clear enough. And, aside from a few numbers, especially the hilariously comic ones, a few lines are all you need to catch their drift. It’s the music, moods, and rhythms you come for and, believe me, there’s no trouble understanding those.
I Like it Like That is an excuse for recalling that lively period in the 70s “when,” as the “programa” notes, “Salsa was the Religion of the Masses.” Laundry hangs high on clotheslines, and Raul Abrego’s set is a wall of wooden slats behind which the sensational orchestra of seven plays; on its face hundreds of excellent projections (created by Rocco Disanti) reflect El Barrio’s buildings and street scenes.
The characters are all stock, beginning with the avuncular Roberto (Nieves), proprietor of a record shop; his dressmaker wife, Carmen (Shadia Fairuz); their younger daughter, Paula (Ana Isabelle), about to celebrate her 16th birthday but ripe for adult experiences; their older daughter, China (Caridad de la Luz), a social activist who joins the Young Lords; their older son, Juan (Joseph “Quique” Gonzalez), a street guy sent to jail on a drug rap; and their younger son, Carlos (Gilberto Velázquez), whose eyes are on law school.
Of course, there are colorful friends and neighbors, chiefly Tita (Rossmery Almonte), a chubby, sassy, older lady, and the similarly chunky Rafa (Angel Lopez), a retiree who digs her; each squeezes mucho comic love juice from their parts. Every actor gets to steal scenes but none does so more often than the remarkable Chachi del Valle, who plays both a crotchety, umbrella-carrying old lady, Babilonia, and the voluptuous, Jessica Rabbit-like femme fatale, Maria Luisa. When this exciting actress-singer-dancer is tightly packed into one of her sexy outfits (perfectly designed by Hoshi Asiatico) and puts on one of her fabulous wigs, she turns into an incarnation of Latina sexiness that would make J.Lo blush. This bombshell has one number in a gold lamé pants suit at a popular dance hall that could supply New York with enough electricity to get through a blackout. And, indeed, this being a show about the 70s, the 1977 blackout, and its consequent looting, plays a part as well.
I Like it Like That is often clumsy, even cheesy (in a good way), a few transitions and exits need to be sharper, some performers sing and dance better than they act, and the attempts at social relevance are more nostalgic than documentarian, but none of this matters very much.
I liked it like that, and so, I’m sure, will you.
I Like it Like That. Through December 30 at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (304 West 47th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.prtt.org
Photos: Marisol Diaz