With "Barrio Grrrl!" playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes and composer Bill Sherman have crafted a bright comic book-like valentine to urban America.
The narrative is a little simplistic, and doesn't have as much cleverness and humor as we're accustomed to seeing at Minneapolis' Children's Theatre, where it opened Friday. Still, this relentlessly energetic musical, a Kennedy Center touring show directed smoothly by Peter Flynn, is ultimately moving, even if its canned music leaves you with a feeling akin to watching carbonated commercials on PBS.
With its syncopated songs and rhythms, "Barrio Grrrl!" humanizes working-class characters that rarely get this kind of stage spotlight, except in stories of pathology.
Nine-year-old Ana (played by able young-adult performer Desiree Rodriguez) lives with her grandfather (Diego Prieto). Her mom (Christina Aranda) is serving in the army abroad. Ana, whose grandfather is sometimes ornery, passes the time playing with neighbors such as Oscar (Christopher Wilson), Odette (Deonna Bouye) and Sandip (Vishal Vaidya).
Ana's people include The Amazing Voice (Michelle Liu Coughlin), a white-clad fairy figure who comforts sad children and serves as Ana's friend and cheerleader. Early on in the show, I found this character to be an intrusive hindrance to the narrative. But the role becomes important in the end.
Like the Broadway hit "In the Heights," for which playwright Hudes also wrote the book, this contemporary story centers not just on a character but also her neighbors, who find inventive ways to achieve their goals.
For example, Ana and her friends have a sweet tooth but can't afford ice cream. They dream up a scheme to solicit funds from neighbors for their treats.
The acting, singing and dancing are all passable.
If we feel sympathy and empathy for Ana, it is because Rodriguez has imbued her not only with perky preciousness, but her performance, and the story, conspire to summon real pathos.
We feel her pain as she seeks to reunite with a mother who may be off on a mission, but who carries her daughter in her heart.
"Barrio Grrrl!" is unusual in that, given demographic trends, it is so future-looking. The show's mosaic of characters are all of color, something we rarely see onstage.
But the lack of a major white role is no drawback for "Barrio Grrrl!," whose action plays out on Misha Kachman's set of dense houses and city stoops. In fact, the musical's sweet ending opens up the show, and the theater, to new feelings.
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