What makes it special?: A play by Matthew Lopez, featuring his aunt, Tony Award-winning actress Priscilla Lopez.
First impressions: The battle between dreams and reality is rich fodder for drama, made more colorful when they are show biz dreams and the reality is powerful as a wrecking ball that's aimed straight at your home.
But in Lopez's play this singular and passionate theme spins its wheels without taking very far the story of a Broadway-and-Hollywood obsessed Puerto Rican family that is struggling to survive in 1959 Manhattan. When the actors and staging aren't pushing the material to musical comedy territory —- and way beyond —- there's a sweet, charming and satisfying family story here, as well as some sublime musical and dance moments, choreographed by Greg Graham and performed with grace and flair. But they are overwhelmed by some creaky lines, redundancy and stage histrionics by these easily excitable characters. There's a play for them, somewhere. Just not here, just not yet.
What's it about?: The family Candelaria doesn't have much, living in what some may consider a West Side slum but they call it home and thrive on the energy of the city, their mother Inez' unflagging optimism and a slew of original Broadway cast albums.
The absent Dad is a crooner perpetually on the road but Inez (Priscilla Lopez), who works as an usher, holds down this tiny fort and keeps hope alive for her children. There's Rebecca, (Jessica Naimy), 16, who sees herself as being a dancing star of Broadway. There's Francisco (Zachary Infante), 17, who sees himself as the next Brando. There's Alejandro (Michael Rosen), 23, who had dancing dreams of his own but has put them aside to support his family.
Sounds like people we might like: And we do. Who wouldn't? The play brims with loving, fun and extravagant characters who seem to be living in a wondrous musical in their own private Broadway. A little "Gypsy" here. A little "Music Man" there. And plenty of "West Side Story," which plays a big part in the narrative.
When the family receives notice to vacate their rented apartment because it is to be torn down in a neighborhood-destroying urban renewal plan, Inez goes into high denial and hunkers down as Alejandro tries to steer the family into the reality of their fate.
Sounds like a solid conflict: It is but it's played out over and over with little variation. (One can have a drinking game with the word "dream.") It's only when the script steps away from its bludgeoned theme that the play and the production resonates in a deeper way.
When "adopted" son Jamie (Cary Tedder), who is now an assistant to director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, tells the family that the neighborhood is being destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center, which will be a "cultural mecca," the arts-loving Inez suddenly shows she is more clearheaded than you may have first thought: "Will the tickets be free? Will there be roles for my children in these plays and musicals and ballets? What do we get out of it besides losing our home?" But this thread is quickly dropped.
When Inez is told, "The apartment isn't what made us a family, ma...This apartment is where it happened but it was never why it happened," you feel the playwright has tapped into something significant.
And when Inez settles down in the second act and shares an intimate family story, she sweeps her children —- and the audience —- in a quiet, personal spell where we see her not as larger- than-life but as life and very real.
But mostly the staging by Giovanna Sardelli and some of the performances don't trust the material and play their roles far too broadly, making the play's weaknesses bigger than they are and its strengths less so.
And the actors?: Priscilla Lopez knows Inez down to her toes, and brings a big heart and humanity to the role when the playwright and director isn't turning her into a Mama Rose with more nobler intentions. Rosen brings a sweet sincerity to a role and he dances like a dream, along with Tedder as his boyhood pal who made good. Infante and Naimy are talented performers who just have to dial it down, way down, to make their characters connect.
Who will like it?: Fans of family fare, "West Side Story" and dancing.
Who wont?: Those looking for deeper understanding of issues of immigrant families, the human effects of urban renewal and the power of arts in our lives.
For the kids?: Older kids will connect with the humor, aspirations and the overall family dynamic. But you might have to brief them on the Golden Age of Musical Theater and Jerome Robbins.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Finding one's place in the world is a compelling journey in Lopez' sometimes moving, joyous, but underdeveloped play.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Maybe it should have been a musical.
The basics: The show plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., in Hartford. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. The play continues through May 4. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.
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