Passage Theatre Continues its Solo Flights Series with “Sorta Rican”; Recording Artist Miss Angelina Brings a Musical Odyssey to Her Home State
“SORTA RICAN”: Passage Theatre has continued its Solo Flights series with “Sorta Rican.” Written and performed by Miss Angelina (above) and directed by Laura Grey, the musical monologue depicts the performer’s search for her cultural identity. (Photo by Rachel Kenaston)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre has continued its Solo Flights series with Sorta Rican, which was presented November 15-17. Written and performed by actor and recording artist Miss Angelina, this autobiographical monologue is a musical odyssey that humorously follows the singer’s quest to connect with her identity as a Latina.
Miss Angelina is a rapper who has released two albums, and has costarred in a music web series that has been featured on the television series American Latino. She has been touring with Sorta Rican since 2015, presenting it at venues such as the Hard Rock Café (San Juan), Broadway Comedy Club (NYC), and Improv Olympic Theater (LA).
The show itself is a tour. The journey starts with the monologist’s upbringing as part of an immigrant family in Little Silver, New Jersey. From there we follow her to New York City (where she lives in Washington Heights), Miami, and San Juan. These all are places that Miss Angelina visits in the course of a search for her cultural heritage. Along the way she encounters disparate preconceptions about what it means to be a Puerto Rican and/or a Latina.
Part of what makes the show engaging is the performer’s ability to find humor in her struggles to feel as though she belongs to a community. Being an American who is half Puerto Rican and half Italian presents challenges to this, as does the fact that she initially does not speak Spanish — which, she quips, is essential to be a Latina.
Inviting us, in the opening number, to “Sit Back and Relax,” Miss Angelina immediately establishes and maintains a rapport with the audience. This is reinforced by director Laura Grey’s staging, which periodically moves her from the stage to the aisle. The performer even invites a member of the audience to join her onstage for a bit of salsa dancing, and the entire audience is beckoned to sing along to “Miss Angelina,” a signature number for the show.
Using a wide palette of accents and vocal inflections, Miss Angelina portrays a variety of characters. The first one we meet is her stern grandmother, who teaches her how to cook, and urges her to stay away from Puerto Rico — advice that she is determined to ignore.
Other characters include her neighbor in a Washington Heights apartment, and the owner of a noisy bar across from her apartment in San Juan. This last character initially is unsympathetic toward her, but unexpectedly helps her when she is in need — and makes it possible for her to connect with a community — when she is at her lowest point.
Photo projections establish the locations. To demarcate the characters she portrays, Miss Angelina changes into costumes and hats that hang on a clothesline that visibly runs across the length of the stage, along with a prominent Puerto Rican flag.
To mark her arrival in Puerto Rico, slides are used to juxtapose a peaceful beach scene, which a tourist might associate with a tropical island, against the exterior of the apartment she actually inhabits when she arrives. Her early experiences in San Juan are detailed in a segment that gives her an outlet with which to discuss political issues, especially Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States following Hurricane Maria.
Miss Angelina holds a degree in music theatre from Northwestern University, and that background is evident here. At one point she borrows from The Little Mermaid, parodying the song “Part of Your World” to describe her wish to return to Puerto Rico (where she had visited when she was younger), and connect with her culture.
Humorously reflecting on her experience growing up as the only Puerto Rican in her school, she recalls being assigned to sing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story at a class concert. (We see video footage of her singing the number as a child, before she sings it live.)
This becomes a point of departure for a wry, candid discussion of cultural representation and stereotypes in musicals. Miss Angelina imagines a Puerto Rican version of The Sound of Music, performing an amusing medley in which “My Favorite Things” revises its list to include piña coladas.
“We love food so much, we write music about it,” Miss Angelina quips. “Not only do we write music about food, we named our music after food: salsa!” Salsa informs the show’s musical vocabulary, along with Caribbean rhythms and hip-hop.
Fittingly it is music that makes it possible for her to connect with her new neighbors in San Juan. Although she initially feels as much an outsider there as she did in the United States, she is warmly received when she accepts the bar owner’s invitation to sing karaoke.
The show leaves one curious to see more of the performer’s experiences in the various places she has visited, but Sorta Rican is well balanced in terms of its content. Character portrayals and wry observations are evenly interspersed with rhythmically driving songs — for which Miss Angelina delivers a crisp, articulate presentation of her lyrics — in addition to dances.
Sorta Rican succeeds thematically because it explores universal issues — immigration, race, and cultural identity — through the lens of Miss Angelina’s personal experiences. The show finds humor, sometimes provocatively, in stereotypes. But these stereotypes are presented in order to underline the extent to which cultural attitudes helped to shape her preconceptions about who she should be.
Aptly it is through song that she finds a resolution to the search for her identity. During a reprise of “Miss Angelina” she realizes that she does not need to define herself by her lineage. Deftly scripted and exuberantly performed, Sorta Rican is a concise, entertaining depiction of a musician’s self-discovery.
Passage Theatre’s upcoming mainstage production is Mother (and Me), which runs March 20-22. For tickets, show times, and further information about Passage Theatre’s season, call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.