By Molly Shimko
The vibrant Latin pre‑show music hinted at the world we were about to inhabit. as we anticipated the story of Radio City Music Hall’s first Latina Rockette. Living up to the bright, colorful, dynamic intro, Lilly Colón and the beautiful piece she created about her life were both endearing, passionate, and an absolute joy to experience.
From Ms. Colón’s entrance to the stage, sprinkled with a few props, signs, and a starlit vanity complete with Rockette trappings, we get the picture of what the piece will cover. We hear an aural review of Ms. Colón’s life, starting with a stage management call for dancers to take their places, and ending with her mother crying, “Lilly, Lilly, Lilly, Lilly!” This story will focus not only on how Ms. Colón became a dancer at Radio City, but also on how her family dynamics shaped her.
Ms. Colón is a delight onstage. Reminiscent of the endearing and effervescent Didi Conn, she effortlessly takes us through her story with genuine warmth and charm. She truly lives in the moment of each age she describes, bringing a childlike wonder and innocence to her early years. She shares heart‑wrenching remembrances of being ripped from her mother’s arms, as her “Mami” was taken away to an unknown destination by men in coats. She was brought to an orphanage and convent by an uncaring father before the age of five. Ms. Colón matured in front of our eyes, engaging us with a vivid portrayal of her actions and feelings in each era.
The piece is well‑organized into clearly delineated sections of her life, beginning with her childhood at the orphanage, through her start as a dancer, up to her first performance as a Rockette. Each segment is thoughtfully paced, with the exception of the somewhat convoluted and difficult section in which she loses her brother to the Vietnam War. However, having seen how deftly Ms. Colón portrays each aspect of her life, my guess is that this was an intentional ‑ and effective ‑ tool to relay the jumble of emotions she felt, dealing with such grief and anger as a teen.
Most impressive is the well‑handled juxtaposition of beauty ‑ such as when Ms. Colón describes her wonder at the visually stunning convent ‑ and violence, when her father unequivocally agrees when the Mother Superior asks whether they may hit his child. Violence is an undeniable theme throughout the piece. Ms. Colón handles this appropriately and skillfully, and counters the darkness in her past with bright spots of humor. She presents her comedic chops many a time, invoking belly laughter from the audience with brilliant physical comedy portrayals of a former Sister Bernadette, a knock‑out in a fur coat, and a demonic kitchen nun, with her self‑aware quips to the audience. These moments work best when followed by a crashing back to reality, such as when Ms. Colón demonstrates her “kick your face” high‑kick to a bully (in true Rockette style!), only to be answered with a “brutal beating.”
Ms. Colón showed physical prowess not only in her comedy, but in her dancing, as well. Still able to hoof with the best of them, Ms. Colón peppered her piece with bits of enlivening choreography. After all, what would a show about a Rockette be without a little dance? Cleverly using specific instances in her career to introduce familiar music and choreography from shows we know and love, such as “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line,” Ms. Colón grounds her piece in popular cultural markers that help us orient the story to a certain time and place, and give us a chance to see why Ms. Colón became a successful dancer.
Consistent through the piece are incredibly evocative moments that make us feel what Ms. Colón must have felt at the time. Extremely key in creating these special moments was the sound design. Always used with a judicious hand, well‑placed sound cues ‑ such as the wail of the ambulance that took away Ms. Colón’s mother ‑ heightened the intensity and fleshed out the scenes.
Truly unforgettable is when Ms. Colón, after learning of the death of her father, dances with a belt, his instrument of violence. In this emotional apex, Ms. Colón brings together the dance and familial aspects of her story, as she comes to terms with the violence and pain of her past, and moves forward, dumping the belt into a garbage can, into which she had dumped previous props, all symbols of the violence in her life.
Shortly afterwards, the tale ends in the same fashion that it began, coming full circle as Ms. Colón prepares for the show at her vanity, as a call to places crackles over the loudspeaker. Bookending the story, Ms. Colón declares, “I will take my place in line,” to the brilliantly chosen instrumental music of Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York.” It is nigh impossible not to shed a tear, or sob, as this reviewer did, when Ms. Colón declares in Spanish that “this one is for Mami.”
Leaving the theater, I found myself wishing that I could listen to the soundtrack of “Lilly” as I made my way home.
Performed by Lily Colón
October 27 at 4 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
MOLLY SHIMKO is an artist and writer originally from Vermont. After obtaining her MFA in Musical Theater from The Boston Conservatory, she moved down to Brooklyn, where she currently free-lances as an editor and illustrator, and works for the New York Public Library and The Juilliard School. Most recently, Molly co-wrote and directed The Fling LP, a new musical play, for The New York Theater Festival Summerfest.