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Geva Theatre's 'Somewhere' critiques Puerto Rican representation 

click to enlarge Maria Cristina Posada Slye as Rebecca and Eddie Gutierrez as Alejandro on Geva Theatre Center's "Somewhere." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Maria Cristina Posada Slye as Rebecca and Eddie Gutierrez as Alejandro on Geva Theatre Center's "Somewhere."
Fans of “West Side Story” will recognize much in playwright Matthew López’s “Somewhere,” playing at Geva Theatre Center through Nov. 13. Of course, there’s the title, referencing one of the 1959 Broadway musical’s famous ballads. There’s the set, held together with fire escapes reminiscent of the poster for the 1961 movie adaptation. Not to mention references to Chita Rivera, a dream ballet, samplings of Leonard Bernstein’s score, and a plot hinging on a character who works on the Broadway show with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. “Somewhere”, directed by Zi Alikhan, assumes its audience has more familiarity with “West Side Story” than with the lives of low-income Puerto Ricans, and uses the musical to ease them into a drama about a Puerto Rican family facing gentrification and deferred dreams.

The Candelarias are a family of dreamers living in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York City in 1959. Inez, the mother, played with superb comic timing by Zuleyma Guevara, embraces the motto “Dream today so you can enjoy tomorrow.” There’s an echo of Mama Rose from “Gypsy”; her hopes of seeing her children dance on Broadway keeps her short-sighted. When the family receives an eviction notice of 30 days, she rips up the letter and refuses to leave her home, even as the power goes out and debris falls from the ceiling. Her son Francisco, played with boyish enthusiasm by Ean Castellanos as he enacts various movie references, wants to be the Puerto Rican Marlon Brando. Her teenage daughter Rebeccca dreams of dancing on Broadway, carrying herself like she’s already there in a poised performance by Maria Cristina Posada Slye.
click to enlarge Maria Cristina Posada Slye, Eddie Gutierrez, with Zuleyma Guevara as Inez and Ean Castellanos as Francisco. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Maria Cristina Posada Slye, Eddie Gutierrez, with Zuleyma Guevara as Inez and Ean Castellanos as Francisco.
The only realist, and the focus of the play, is the eldest son Alejandro. As a child he was cast in “The King and I,” but after their father leaves for Chicago and stops contacting them, he puts aside his Broadway plans to make sure the bills get paid and his family eats. “Someone has to look at the world and not imagine it away,” he says. Eddie Gutierrez plays him with a festering bitterness that explodes into shouting matches every time Jamie shows up. Jamie is Inez’s adopted prodigal son, a close neighborhood friend who now works with Jerome Robbins and who Inez sees as her children’s golden ticket to Broadway.

The play’s conflict lies in the tension between the world as it is and the world as it could be, as portrayed on stage and screen. When Inez learns that their tenement building is being destroyed to make room for the Lincoln Center of the Arts, she points out that her home already is a center for the performing arts.
click to enlarge "Somewhere" features inspired set design by Chika Shimizu. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • "Somewhere" features inspired set design by Chika Shimizu.
Chika Shimizu’s scenic design, a visual feast, supports Inez's claim: The detailed kitchen and living room, the vibrant blue wallpaper, the plants and photographs, and the floor with scuff marks from dancing show what the Candelarias stand to lose.

The play invites the audience to suspend their disbelief in a way that’s similar to musicals — when the characters feel too much emotion to speak, they dance. These moments are gorgeous and rich. Karla Puno Garcia choreographs a Jerome Robbins-infused blend of Broadway ballet, tap, swing, and mambo. It’s a pleasure to spend time in a world where characters dance on their kitchen table whenever they daydream, and recover from fights with a partnered routine.
click to enlarge Eddie Gutierrez with Zach McNally as Jamie. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Eddie Gutierrez with Zach McNally as Jamie.
Unfortunately the show also expects the audience to suspend disbelief in terms of some of the plot points and characterization. It’s hard to believe that the Candelarias would wait until their house is literally being knocked down to start packing, or that they never considered that Jamie may have had a little extra luck on Broadway because he’s white instead of Puerto Rican. The characters come off as naïve, a little too convinced that their father will be home any day now, and that “West Side Story” will be their ticket out of poverty.

According to the program, López has said “My family loved 'West Side Story,' but as I thought about it, I realized their love for the show wasn’t reciprocated by it.” Dramaturg Christin Eve Cato’s detailed program note thoughtfully expands upon both the musical’s resonance and its shortcomings in depicting Puerto Ricans. These nuances are lacking in “Somewhere,” where “West Side Story” remains only an idealized dream. As a result, the characters who live for it are a bit hollow.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
“Somewhere” dreams of paying homage to “West Side Story” while also giving a complex look at the realities of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. But as Alejandro argues throughout the play, having a dream isn’t enough. “Somewhere” has a story worth telling, but only gets halfway there.

Geva Theatre Center’s production of “Somewhere” continues through Nov. 13 on the Wilson Stage, 75 Woodbury Blvd in Rochester. For more information and tickets, go to gevatheatre.org/somewhere.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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