I Like It Like That – A Musical
Tito Nieves stars in a new musical at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater.
Salsa music didn't originate in San Juan or Havana or Cartagena, but in our very own New York City. What better way to celebrate the eclectic mix of danceable Latin rhythms than in a New York theater with a new musical starring Tito Nieves, the man often called the Pavarotti of Salsa? That's what Pregones / Puerto Rican Traveling Theater is offering with the world premiere of I Like It Like That, named after the Manny Rodriquez number that Nieves covered in the mid-'90s (most famously for a Burger King commercial). It's a delightful jukebox extravaganza certain to have you on your feet by the end of the show, and for less money than comparable Broadway fare.
Puerto Rican-American Roberto (Tito Nieves) owns a record store in Spanish Harlem (or "El Barrio"), where he lives with his wife, Carmen (Shadia Fairuz), and their four children: Juan (Gilberto Velázquez), China (Caridad De La Luz), Carlos (Joseph "Quique" González), and Paula (Ana Isabelle). But it's the 1970s, New York City is on the verge of bankruptcy, and garbage keeps piling in the streets. On top of that, Juan gets carted away to Sing Sing following a drug bust, while China joins the militant Young Lords Party. Through it all, the family sticks together with the help of neighbors like Tita (the hilarious Rossmery Almonte) and Vietnam veteran Rafa (a sympathetic and jubilant Angel López). Through block parties and blackouts, they remain, solidly, a community.
As you might be able to tell from that very busy plot description, I Like It Like That suffers from many of the same flaws seen in other musicals that attempt to shoehorn a parade of hits into a manufactured plot: The exposition is clunky, with no plotline getting truly adequate attention, least of all the very relevant social issues (like police brutality) that the writers gently attempt to raise without killing the festive mood. But honestly, the music is so much fun and the singing so impressive, it's easy to forgive a touch-and-go plot (call it "the Mamma Mia! effect").
Truly, the seven-man band led Desmar Guevara sounds excellent, as does everyone in the cast. The singing is record-studio good (which should surprise nobody after reading the bios of the seasoned music industry pros in the cast). The broodingly handsome Velázquez sports a tenor that is simultaneously soulful and crystal clear, while Nieves' bullhorn of a voice doesn't seem to have aged a day since 1997. A talented singer and dancer, Chachi Del Valle impressively switch-hits as abuela Babilonia (who will smack you with her fan if you lean too far into the aisle) and María Luisa, a buxom lady in red who habitually seduces men into bad decisions. Valle's magnificently shady duet with López, "Controversia," is the comedic highlight of the show.
The cast sings classic numbers by Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri in addition to original songs penned for the production by tireless director Waddys Jáquez (who coauthored the book and choreographed the show's memorably energetic dances, like a Dominican Michael Bennett). This is undoubtedly an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles inherent in so contrived and scattershot a book; it is only occasionally successful.
In fairness, Jáquez and David Maldonado (the other book writer) are able to pull off a compelling narrative about Roberto and Carmen's three adult children: Carlos wants to escape the barrio and become a rich lawyer; Gina is an activist who wants to clean up the hood; and Juan has the makings of a great entrepreneur, in and out of the drug trade. Their divergent paths — the ways they push against parental expectations yet come together around family and tradition — are universal to the American immigrant story. In that sense, I Like It Like That feels like El Barrio's answer to Fiddler on the Roof.
Certainly, the colors employed by costume designer Hochi Asiatico are a lot louder than those typically found in the shtetl and this is as it should be: From Carlos' bell bottom jeans to Paula's frilly pink quinceañera dress, everything feels pulled right from the '70s. Scenic designer Raul Abrego festoons the mezzanine of the theater with drying laundry to bring us into this urban landscape. The upstage wall is a slatted faux-brick backdrop that masks the band, with a small black screen for English supertitles (while the dialogue is mostly English, the songs are mostly Spanish). Projection designer Rocco Disanti tries to project larger supertitles on the full wall for certain songs (like Juan's jailhouse number "Mi Libertad"), but they're difficult to read on the red backdrop. In this case, less is more and we English speakers are perfectly content with the little black box.
With smattered references to beloved Nuyorican institutions like the Corso nightclub (long defunct) and Valencia Bakery (still thriving in multiple locations), I Like It Like that leans heavily on nostalgia, but in a way that feels incredibly inviting. It's a tuneful stroll down memory lane for those who were there and a joyous adventure for those hearing the music for the first time. After seeing this show, it certainly won't be their last.