Alejandro Candelaria’s (Michael Rosen) Broadway debut at 12 years old opposite Yule Brynner in The King and I was either legendary or forgettable depending on who’s telling the story in Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere at the Hartford Stage.
The dancer could have been a star like his absent father, Pepe, but life got in the way and he stopped dreaming. The East Coast premier of the show runs for another two weeks at the Church Street theater in Hartford.
As Alejandro devotes his time to working, cooking and taking care of his Puerto Rican family in 1959 New York City, putting dancing behind him, his family never stops encouraging him to dream.
West Side Story is big on Broadway and the family turns to musical theater and dance as an escape and inspiration. His brother, Francisco (Zachary Infante) wants to be the next Marlon Brando, his sister, Rebecca (Jessica Naimy) bursts with enthusiasm about her dream of being a Broadway dancer and his mother, Inez (Priscilla Lopez) dreams for her children to be successful in the arts. Jamie (Cary Tedder), the boy his family took in as one of their own when his alcoholic parents abandoned him, has achieved success as a Broadway dancer and choreographer working opposite renowned choreographer, director and producer Jerome Robbins. But his theatrical accolades also distance him from his adoptive family as they struggle to pay rent.
Then two things happen that will challenge whether realism or dreaming triumph in the way the characters look at the world. Robert Moses’ West Side development conquest for the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project pushes the Candelarias out of their apartment, which will be demolished along with 14 blocks of homes and businesses in the neighborhood and condemned as a slum to make way for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Their passion is theater, but is New York’s new art district plan worth their eviction? But then, after they are forced to take public housing, the film production of West Side Story starts shooting in the projects near their new home.
Francisco (Infante) races home to tell his family of the great news that he got into another fight – not with a real gang this time but withWest Side Story‘s Jets actors in the middle of the playground shoot for the film.
According to the show’s program, West Side Story director Robert Wise gave Lincoln Center project contractors $5,000 to hold off on demolishing 67th and 68th Street homes so they could film the opening scene of the movie in the neighborhood. Maybe the Candelarias’ faith in dreaming could be their ticket to success and out of poverty after all. But it could also be a distraction to survival.
All of the characters burst in passion from their fingers to their toes in big dance numbers that often symbolize their dreams for the future.
If you like the song and dance of a musical, you’ll get that in Somewhere in tribute to the West Side Story era. Choreographer Greg Graham has TV credits for SMASH and Ugly Betty and has choreographed Fosse, Hairspray, Chicago, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Billy Elliot on Broadway. Bill Sherman, Tony Award-winning composer of In the Heights, did the original music for the show.
But you’ll also get an intriguing plot and deep characters from a well-written script. Playwright Lopez is also one of the writers on HBO hit The Newsroom. He has a connection with the Hartford Stage as a 2012-13 Aetna New Voices Fellow and a former mentor for the theater’s Write On and Project Transform high school programs, according to the playbill.
Lopez wrote the part of Inez Candelaria for his aunt, Priscilla Lopez, a past Tony Award winner who stars as the character in the production at Hartford Stage. Prescilla Lopez had an uncredited role in the West Side Story film and is best known for her role as Diana Morales in Broadway hit A Chorus Line (1975).
Infante provides the comic relief with every movement, gesture and vocal inflection and Naimy epitomizes the exuberant dreamer.
Act I is full of innocent hope and comedy, but the despair that interrupts the light-heartedness in the play brings out some of the most powerful scenes and dramatic character arches before intermission and in Act 2. When a wrecking ball finally comes down on the Candelarias’ building, nothing rattles the audience and characters into reality more than Alejandro (Rosen) yelling for his stubborn mother to get out of her room and for his siblings to pack up whatever they can and evacuate as the walls rumble and their ceiling crumbles.
Rosen, who actually starred in a Broadway production of West Side Story and who is on leave from Yale in New Haven, brings the most emotion to his character, Alejandro toward the second act when he is breaking from the stress of protecting his family. His seemingly humble refusal to dance again and audition for West Side Story, the play or the film, is not the real problem. In his own way, he hasn’t stopped acting since he gave up the arts as he puts up a facade of strength to protect his family. As the outer walls of his character crumble with the rest of his neighborhood, it exposes the truth about a lie he crafted that could emotionally ruin his family and darken their dreams.
“I don’t want to see the world as it could be. I want to see it as it is,” Alejandro shouts through tears when he finally expresses the seriousness of his troubles.
The title, Somewhere is a play on the Stephen Sondheim lyrics from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story song by the same name. In West Side Story, the differences between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks threaten Tony and Maria’s Romeo- and Juliet-like relationship after he kills Bernardo, her brother and Shark leader, in a rumble. Tony sings “Somewhere” to comfort Maria and she joins in on the duet as they dream of a life together without conflict, somewhere.
“There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
“There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .”
The Candelarias share the same hope in their dreams for theatrical success and survival as a family.
You’ll feel like a part of the Candelarias’ neighborhood with the laundry lines strung over the audience. Audience members’ proximity to the thrust three-sided stage and aisle exits/entrances allow you to see every detail of emotion on the characters’ faces. Tony Award winner Donyale Werle designed the set.
Somewhere, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is a comedy, a tragedy, a musical and a drama wrapped up into one show. But it is also something else. History – which after all is the production of both realists and dreamers.
The show runs through May 4 at the Hartford Stage, located at 50 Church St. More information on the production, show dates and tickets are available on the Hartford Stage website, www.hartfordstage.org.