Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: I Like It Like Eh

By Michael Block

Some theater makes set out to engage through intellect. Others seek engagement through entertainment. Both are viable options but sometimes entertaining gets in the way of content. Such is the case of David Maldonado and Waddys Jaquez's I Like It Like That. Blending a score of Latino hits with some specially made numbers, set in New York City in the 70's, I Like It Like That is a celebration of a spirited people during a time of struggle.
"El Barrio" is alive in I Like It Like That as we watch a Puerto Rican family live in a time of turmoil. Set to an energetic soundtrack of fan favorites, we watch as each family member, along with their vibrant neighbors, deal with varying moral and social issues. The plot is thin. And so are the characters. But it's an experience just to witness the participatory reactions from the audience. If you thought the energy was high on stage, it was multiplied in the crowd. It's one thing to engage an audience in a manner that makes it a crowd pleaser, but the truth is I Like It Like That pulls the wool over their eyes. If you truly dissect this show, it's sadly not a good theatrical product. It's part In the Heights, part Trip of Love. In reality, it's a thin book musical with a little jukebox thrown in. There are way too many characters to honor a strong arc for each individual. It's no secret, this is a musical for a certain demographic. Maldonado and Jaquez insert references just to get bold reactions from the audience. There are even moments when the crowd will burst out the coming line simply because they know where it's going. Pandering is one thing if it can be earned. Unfortunately, they were not. What's interesting about the structure of the piece is how Jaquez writes music for specific beats. And surprisingly, they offer some great musical moments. Could I Like It Like That thrived on all original material? It's very possible. Pigeonholing the jukebox into the show did not pay off.
photo by Marisol Diaz
This is a show that requires true triple threats. This company was not that. We had some folks who ticked off two boxes and many who could do only one. But nevertheless, each individual brought an exuberant amount of energy and pride. The closest triple threat was Chachi Del Valle in the multi-track role. Del Valle brought the funny, the sexy, and the dramatic. Ana Isabelle was delightfully sugary as youngest daughter Paula. The main attraction of the production was the theatrical debut of salsa legend Tito Nieves. Nieves as Roberto has a booming vocal and managed to sell the paternal aspects of Roberto.
Taking on the directorial role was Waddys Jaquez. Jaquez’s vision was bold and extravagant. There’s no doubt, whether it was due to his closeness to the material or not, there was a plethora of excess material that could easily be eliminated. When it came to guiding his design team, Jaquez and company went for flash and panache. The set by Raul Abrego was a bit of a detriment. The slated brick wall allowed the exceptional band to be heard but there were no secrets when it came to seeing actors moving around behind. Aside from the limiting playing space, the texture on texture was not good for Rocco Disanti’s projection design. Disanti mixed the English subtitle projections between a black cutout on the wall and an ostentatious lyric video design, the latter being much more exciting. Between the lights from Lucrecia Briceno and G. Benjamin Swope and the costumes by Hochi Asiatico, color thrived.
You absolutely cannot deny that I Like It Like That is a crowd-pleasure. The moment the first chords of the title song are played, the crowd goes wild. There is a history in this story, but it doesn’t shine. It’s the energy of the music that brings this show together. If you’re looking for a strong musical, this is not it. If you want to have fun, you’ll like this like this.