The Candelaria clan is a family of hoofers dancing as fast as they can. But no matter how quick they are, the American dream seems to be just beyond their reach in "Somewhere."
Matthew Lopez's ebullient but flawed new family drama was inspired by his family's history and the life of his aunt, Priscilla Lopez, the dancer-actress best known as the fiery Morales in "A Chorus Line" on Broadway. Vibrantly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, the promising period charmer seems like a work in progress in its regional premiere at TheatreWorks through Feb. 10. It engagingly transports us back in time to the heady '50s in Manhattan, but it never quite figures out where its characters are headed.
The Candelaria family lives and breathes showbiz. Inez is the Ethel Merman of the tenements. She's a force of nature in a faded house dress. She and her dancer daughter Rebecca (the radiant Michelle Cabinian) work as ushers so they can see musicals. Her oldest son Alejandro (Michael Rosen) got cast in "The King and I" on Broadway when he was 13 but now slaves away as a waiter in a hotel. Her younger son Francisco (Eddie Gutierrez) dreams of acting in the movies.
Broadway is in their blood, so they are thrilled when "West Side Story" starts shooting on the streets of their neighborhood. They have finally arrived. But their exhilaration dissolves when their dingy apartment building is marked for demolition and the Puerto Rican community is uprooted to make room for Lincoln Center.
Lopez, a writer for HBO's "The Newsroom," draws us in with a witty and warm commentary on immigration and the way newcomers are simultaneously seduced and stung by the forces of assimilation. Inez and Alejandro work 80 hours a week in dead-end jobs that barely pay the bills. They worship at the church of Broadway, but they know they will never be able to afford a ticket.
While the exuberant drama often feels overfull, as if the playwright could not bear to part with any of his source material, there's no denying its energy and passion.
Lopez, whose "The Whipping Man" runs March 28-April 21 at Marin Theatre Company, has a real feel for the romance of the past. He also knows how to conjure up indelible characters with universal dreams. He just hasn't quite decided whose story should be the star of the show, so the plot zigzags as much as the dance steps, and it's hard understand some of the character's motivations. Rosen etches Alejandro's pain as well as his loyalty, but the text doesn't give us enough clues into his inner struggles.
Lopez, a Tony-winning Broadway veteran ("In the Heights"), has this part in her bones. She grounds the play with her deeply felt and compelling performance as Inez, the indomitable family matriarch. Inez has been bruised by life, but she will never be beaten by it. She lives in her dreams, and they give her hope, whether they come true or not.
The dance sequences in particular, which riff on the throb and pulse of "West Side Story," are guaranteed to sweep musical theater buffs away on the wings of nostalgia. Rebecca's living-room ballets and Alejandro's soft-shoe with Jamie (Leo Ash Evans), a neighborhood kid who made it on Broadway, are memorable.
While the play is saddled with one too many fantasy sequences, Alejandro's narrative arc feels muddled, and the ending is a puzzler. Greg Graham's whimsical choreography lends the production its most ethereal moments. If the text were as sure-footed as the dance, "Somewhere" would be irresistible.
The delicacy of the movement captures the loftiness of Inez's dreams for her family. They dance as if their lives depended on it, leaping and twirling through one cramped apartment after another, leaving the squalor of the slums behind as long as the music plays.
By Matthew Lopez
Through: Feb. 10
Where: TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Mountain View
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $23-$73, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org