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'Somewhere' is the land between dreams & delusions in Hartford Stage production

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"Somewhere" at Hartford Stage

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“There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us” reminds a Stephen Sondheim lyric from “West Side Story.” For Inez Candelaria, the Puerto Rican mother in Matthew Lopez’s new play “Somewhere” now playing at Hartford Stage through May 4, that “somewhere” for her children is Broadway, located just several blocks south of the family’s San Juan Hill tenement in 1959 New York, and where Inez and her daughter Rebecca work as ushers.

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Under Giovanna Sardelli’s direction, “Somewhere” emerges as a compelling, if somewhat imperfect work, aided by some terrific performances and occasional bursts of exuberant choreography by Greg Graham, yet bogged down by some needless repetition and a few stretches of credulity. At two acts and nearly 2-1/2 hours in length, it wears on an audience’s patience, as its progression seems obvious and the stakes turn out to be not particularly high.

It’s hard to believe that Lopez, author of the deservedly-lauded “The Whipping Man,” was able to be so precise, tight and concise with this latter work, but allows “Somewhere” to ramble at times or even to come to a complete halt more than once to incorporate a dance number or a dance fantasy. It’s not that the dances don’t work in the context of the play—they do and some are absolutely necessary. But is there a need to reiterate the point that the kids are indeed talented and that the dreams are what enables the family to endure its difficult economic situation?

Based somewhat on Lopez’s own New York family, we meet the matriarch, Inez, originally a singer and dancer herself, who left performing in order to raise a family. As she has reared her three children, she has aimed them in one direction, to pursue careers on the stage. The eldest, Alejandro, appeared as one of the royal children in the original production of “The King and I,” but now in his late teens finds it necessary to concentrate on making money to his support his younger siblings’ dance and acting lessons. His feisty diminutive brother Francisco is a walking compendium of movie knowledge, particularly gangster films, whose goal is to out-Brando Brando. The poised innocent Rebecca possesses genuine talent as a dancer with dreams of one day joining the ensemble of “West Side Story” or one of the other popular musicals of the day, “Gypsy,” “The Sound of Music,” or “The Music Man.

Although Inez’s husband, a jazz musician, is on the road for extended periods of time and only occasionally sends money home to his barely scraping by family, Inez grasps at her notion of family, even though it is strongly suggested that her husband is probably alcoholic or worse. She perhaps is the biggest and most stubborn dreamer of the family, though she works very hard to maintain those dreams with her children. Alejandro, however, saddled more and more with the duties of being the man of the house, has become contemptuous of those dreams, viewing them instead as delusions, as he tries unsuccessfully to insert a sense of reality and responsibility into the family’s everyday life. When word comes that the neighborhood is to be torn down under eminent domain in order to build the largest cultural arts center that the world has ever known, what will become Lincoln Center, Inez enters denial mode, ripping up and ignoring any eviction notices.

The playwright also includes a major character named Jamie, who functions primarily as a plot device to eventually connect the characters to the filming, one year after the first act, of the film version of “West Side Story” right in the Candelaria’s neighborhood. Jamie was years ago the neglected child of alcoholic parents who was more or less adopted by Inez and became the first successful product of her prodding and cajoling. Now in his 20’s, he’s a veteran of numerous Broadway musicals and serves currently (and conveniently for the plot) as Jerome Robbins’ assistant. It stretches believability that Jamie, who in Cary Tedder’s performance seems like a genuinely nice guy, would ignore “his” adoptive family for several years with Broadway just a few blocks away and Inez and Rebecca working in the theater district. Just his merely moving out, with occasional phone calls and the less frequent visits, would allow Lopez to make his point and still offer Jamie as a redeeming character.

“Somewhere” is part of a growing trend in theater of plays with music (and dance in this case) that aren’t quite musicals, but do incorporate all of these elements relatively seamlessly to tell the story. Bill Sherman has composed original music which nicely complements the snippets of show music and popular music of the 1950’s which allow the actors to realistically break out into dances, either for rehearsal purposes, as auditions, or most elegantly, dream sequences.

As a result, the cast all need to be both fine actors and excellent dancers. The greatest asset and one of the hardest workers is Michael Rosen, a veteran of the New York City Ballet who made a recent foray into acting and dancing in last season’s “Nikolai and the Others” at Lincoln Center Theater. He invests Alejandro with the angst and anxiety of a young man trying to be the voice of reason in a family that refuses to listen, yet who is frequently expected to make decisions and keep the family together, as long as the dreams survive. Rosen very ably and sympathetically shows the young man’s mood swings, from confident older brother to exasperated son, finding it necessary to develop surreptitious ways to even parent his own mother to keep the family whole.

The playwright’s aunt, Tony-Award winning Broadway veteran Priscilla Lopez, contributes an appropriately oversized, yet warm hearted performance as Inez, demonstrating her character’s sincere belief in her children’s abilities while exhibiting a stage mother’s persistence just several levels below that seen in one of Inez’s ushering assignments, the Mama Rose of Ethel Merman in “Gypsy.” It’s a treat to see that the character who sang her heart out in “What I Did For Love” in the original “A Chorus Line” can still command a stage.

Jessica Naimy as daughter Rebecca is a lithe, ebullient dancer who manages to convey the sheltered girl’s naivety, whose advanced abilities sometimes belie her character’s years, but work just fine for a dream sequence as she folds the family’s laundry and in a scene changing duet with Jamie, whose presence apparently serves to elevate Rebecca’s performance. Zachary Infante is amusing and endearing as the wise-cracking, teenage spitfire Francisco, who can imitate any number of screen actors or act out any number of classic movie scenes, yet feels dismayed by his mother’s failure to push him along, although as Infante demonstrates, Francisco will not need much help in pushing himself forward. As mentioned before Tedder, who is also a splendid dancer, exhibits a decency and gratitude that doesn’t quite explain his absences especially considering he cares a lot about the teenagers he considers his siblings.

Donyale Werle has designed a detailed tenement set that seems stunning in its veracity and which can be easily adapted for a trade-off in the second act. It also simply but effectively accommodates some portentous activity just before the first act curtain. Amy Clark’s costumes capture the 50’s flavor of urban residents who are maintaining their pride and dignity at all costs, while Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting not only conveys the various times of day, including one sudden blackout, but allows the dream sequences to shimmer and shine in the ways they obviously are enjoyed in each character’s mind.

The show, however, does need to be a bit more compact, as it can be repetitious at times, with some of the same points reiterated a few times to many and some of the plot developments seemingly going nowhere. Lopez does include a major plot twist in the second act that works at that pointprecisely because we have been drawn in by the writing and by the charismatic cast. When its all over, there’s nothing significant we have learned from “Somewhere” as this is a story whose parts we have encountered in various guises in the past. But we leave on a high note because we have found this family to be endearing and only hope that they can adapt their dreams to their new realities and find genuine joy and happiness in their lives.

For information and tickets, call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and/or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of the this article near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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