Friday, May 3, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 160, "In the Heights" (Westport Country Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Everybody's got a story in Washington Heights.

A store clerk longs to woo the woman of his dreams.
A financially plagued married couple struggles to make ends meet with a taxi service that's about to go under.
A corner bodega gives away free, fresh coffee to friends, family and nicely shaped, attractive women.
refreshing frozen fruit Piragua of shaved ice awaits those customers willing to bypass the tempting offers of the nearby Mister Softee vendor.
A trio of beauticians are on call with the local gossip until the owner announces she's closing up shop and taking her business to the Bronx.
A young girl drops out of college and falls in love with a boy her parents disapprove of.

But wait, there's more.

A winning lottery ticket bought by a treasured local is split between three people.
A heat wave engulfs the neighborhood as does a power cut, a black out and a sunset.
A chatty rap of syncopated awakening is echoed in the streets.
A Fourth of July fireworks display heightens the mood.
Subway trains rumble past apartment buildings, day and night
An unexpected death of a loved one prompts a celebratory candlelight vigil.
A cafe con leche with cinnamon awaits those with a passion for something hot and sweet.

There's also music, dancing, singing, language and Latino culture on every doorstep in the neighborhood.

Welcome to the world of "In the Heights."

At Westport Country Playhouse, the electrifying sound of Hispanic zing and snap you hear coming from the spacious environs of this celebrated theater (Alla Nazimova, Henry Fonda, Gloria Swanson and Olivia de Havilland once performed here) is not only real and fiesta-like, but thrillingly contagious and inviting. Amidst cries of joy, surprise and excitement, this passionate celebration of life and the people who live it belongs to Lin-Manuel Miranda's pulsating rap-meets-salsa musical, which began life on Broadway back in 2008, long before "Hamilton," that $2,000-$5,000 a-ticket, hip-hop Broadway musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton became the rage of those who could afford it and those who couldn't, but deliberately maxed out their American Express or Visa card for three long years all for the sake of posting selfies of themselves holding "Hamilton" playbills on "Facebook," "Instagram" and other social media.

In Wesport, you can see "In the Heights" for much less than "Hamilton" and revel in all things Miranda.
Ticket prices range from $30 to $70, depending on your seating preference.

"In the Heights," which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, is set in the barrio of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood right near the tip of the borough. Here, a variety of  multi-lingual, multi-racial residents become Miranda's mouthpiece as they sing, dance and talk about their troubled lives, their financial and romantic problems, their lusts and desires. their longings, their fears, their dreams, their passions, their familial conflicts and finally, their desire to break free from the community, in search of a better place...god willing.

It all makes perfect sense too.

From the moment the incredible, tremendously talented cast of "In the Heights" take center stage at Westport Country Playhouse to sing the rousing and welcoming title tune that sets the musical in motion at the start of Act I to the joyful, tear-stained, impassioned closing Act II anthem "When the Sun Goes Down," this exhilarating revival of Miranda's earlier work, delights, cajoles, excites and whips you into a frenzied state of delirium from which there is no escape.


"In the Heights" has it all.

Dance-driven with playful musicality and story board commitment, the "In the Heights" experience
is further enlivened by the musical's feverish Latino pop, merengue and salsa score and the spirited, warmly rendered play script by Quiara Alegria Hudes, which, almost everyone in the audience could identify with regardless of their economic, social, religious positions and educational backgrounds. Miranda wouldn't have it any other way.

In Westport, "In the Heights" has been directed by Marcos Santana (he also doubles as choreographer)  whose credits include "Man of La Mancha," "Evita," "West Side Story," "Newsies," "On Your Feet!" and "The Pirates of Penzance."  As director, he embraces and welcomes the "In the Heights" material with the passion, confidence and intuitiveness that has shaped and nurtured his professional career. He loves musicals. He gets musicals. He loves the entire rehearsal process from the first read through to opening night. He knows how to cast a show and cast it well. He knows what works and what doesn't. He also knows how to create a buzz, take a breath, take a chance and rock you silly with imagination. Here, the harsh realities of barrio life, the financial struggles of its people, their fight for survival and their need to move on in the hope of finding something better, resonates with real purpose and drive. As does, the different personalities and lifestyles of the individuals who populate the neighborhoods of Washington Heights.

As "In the Heights" evolves, Santana brings tremendous understanding and insight to his production. He lets it breathe, shape and ripen. He lets it seduce, entice and thrill. He lets it simmer, boil and pop. He lets it pause, stop and stand still. He lets it speak, philosophize and dream. He has also cast this incarnation of the Broadway musical well, using an ensemble cast of performers who not only look the part, but act as though they actually grew up in the neighborhoods of upper Manhattan's Washington Heights. And finally, his smart, intuitive take on the musical's choice, Hispanic one-liners, its English and Hispanic dialogue, its suggestive word play, its calculations, involvements and conclusions, speaks volumes.

Dance - that is dance, comparable to "West Side Story" and "On Your Feet!" - is everything in a musical of this design, which as originally shaped and envisioned by Miranda, must, at all times, naturally reflect the stories and memories from his own life, his own neighborhood, and the people he grew up with in order to keep the "In the Heights" story in constant motion. So who better to whip things into shape than Santana. This is his terrain. He not only knows what to do and how to do it, but he lets his imagination run wild much to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience.

As dance impresario, Santana is in his element. The sparks, the electricity, the fire, the passion and the fluidity of movement he ignites is both amazing and ovation worthy. The musical's fiery look, style, heartbeat and pulse vividly reflects the actual themes and ripping effects of life in the Washington Heights barrio and its dependence on rap influences, hip hop, break dancing, street dancing and merengue, etc.

There are streetwise cusps and signals, pulsating bumps, twists and grinds, round-and-round the floor dance patterns and perfectly timed lifts, offset by intricate Latino and salsa rhythms that give a three-dimensional flair and excitement to the proceedings. Moreover, everyone that participates in Santana's "In the Heights" musical tableaux is at the top of their game. They love it. We love it. Santana loves it.
There's no strain, no mistakes, no uncertainty, no calculation, no hesitation. Just dancers, singers and actors doing what they love best, enhanced by a passion, understanding and creativity for dance movement and choreography. Under Santana's tutelage, things are performed with such contagious, concentrated flourish and theatricality, you actually believe that every one of these dances really came from the streets of Washington Heights. Really? Yes, really.

The musical score for "In the Heights," featuring music and lyrics written by Lin- Manuel Miranda, contains 25 songs. They include "In the Heights," "Breathe," "No Me Diga," "96,000," "When You're Home," "Sunrise," "Carnival Del Bario," "Alabanza," "Everything I Know," "Champagne" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Intricate and multi-layered, the songs themselves are crisp, inviting, distinct and kaleidoscopic. They are important to the telling and evolution of the story. Everyone has his or her own song to express their innermost thoughts, feelings and desires.
Nothing is thrown in just for the sake of giving certain leads and supporting players extra stage time. Nor is anything in the music and lyrics overly preachy, corny or dripping with sentiment. Instead, everything is mapped out perfectly. There are showstoppers, glossy comic numbers, tenderhearted duets and fiery anthems and ballads that reflect the life of the barrio and its people. Many of them are designed to toy with your senses and get you thinking about your own family and your own experiences long after "In the Heights" has ended.

Backed by nine very talented musicians, musical director Daniel Green never misses a beat. He and his orchestral team give Miranda's music the attention, snap, crackle and pop it deserves. The vocal diction and musicality of the entire cast, in both English and Spanish, is dynamic and wonderfully precise. Full-bodied ensemble numbers generate authority, warmth and heated passion. Breakout vocals with one, two or three characters, contain the same balanced pulse, imagination and allure. Better yet, Green and company are not just playing the score, they are living it. Big, big difference!

In the role of Usnavi de la Vega, the role originated by Miranda in the 2008 Tony award-winning Broadway production,  Rodolfo Soto is every inch as good as his predecessor, but offers his own interpretation of the character. A natural-born showman and entertainer who clearly enjoys being on stage, Soto is exactly right for the role of Usnavi. He is personable. He is shy. He is vulnerable. He is charming. He is animated. He is totally in charge as both leading player and narrator. He is also an actor who can get the entire "In the Heights" cast on stage front and center for a big, celebratory neighborhood dance or to shed massive tears during a sweet and sentimental vigil when a beloved character is suddenly taken away by death during the first half of Act II.  The actor also brings a sense of urgency and dynamic to the proceedings, which not only keeps things real and reflective, but continually in motion until the musical's bittersweet, justified conclusion.

In the role of "Abuela" Claudia, the neighborhood barrio matriarch who has become grandmother to practically every one of the musical's main characters, Blanca Camacho offers a fascinating, well-rounded performance that is so beautiful, so hypnotic and so controlled, you just want to give her a big hug and never let her go. In the musical, her character is the one who has looked after and raised Usnavi after his mother died.
From the moment she appears on stage, you can't help but become transfixed. A lot, of course, has to do with the way the part of "Abuela" has been written. Regardless, Camacho not only owns the part, but commands your attention whenever she is on stage, engaging in conversations with the play's central characters, reveling about life, its forgotten dreams, passions and pathos-steeped gallantry. Vocally, she is dynamic and yes, she literally stops the show when she takes center stage to sing "Paciencia Y Fe," an impassioned song of encouragement.

The charismatic and beguiling Didi Romero is perfectly cast as Nina Rosario, She is vigorous, enchanting, sweet, resolute and high-spirited. She truthfully projects the image of an angst-ridden young woman who made it out of the barrio, only to return home (she has dropped out of Stanford University) troubled, confused and uncertain about the path that lies ahead. She is well matched opposite the charismatic and personable Gerald Caesar who portrays Benny, a black dispatcher for her father's cab company who doesn't speak a word of Spanish, but tries to pull off his difficult feat in one of the play's hilariously timed comic sequences. And when both characters fall in love, a la "West Side Story," we gladly cheer them on, knowing they won't suffer the same fate as Tony and Maria did in the popular Tony Award-winning musical.

As Kevin and Camila Rosario, the owners of a not-so-profitable gypsy cab company, which they are forced to sell so their daughter Nina can realize her dream and return to college, Tony Chiroldes and Doreen Montalvo are both strong singers and actors who believably communicate their character's ongoing troubles through song, dialogue and characterization. With "Enough," Montalvo delivers a searing vocal that projects Camilla's loss of patience regarding her husband and daughter's arguments and deceits while Chiroldes, much earlier, brings tremendous urgency and pathos to "Inutil," a moving and revelatory ballad about fatherhood

Cast in the pivotal role of the street-smart, take-charge, vivacious Daniela, Sanrda Marante is fiery, commanding, sexy, wicked and playful. She is so in sync with the material, the music  and her actual roles in the story, never once do you think she is acting. She is the real deal, front, backwards, left, right and center. We not only get what she does and why she does it, but we understand her character's desire to close up shop (she owns a beauty salon) and move to the Bronx. We cheer her every step of the way, hoping and knowing she will succeed. 

Spicy, soulful and sizzling, this showstopping revival of the 2008 Broadway musical celebrates life, togetherness and survival through the eyes of its creator and mentor Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical score, chock full of rap, pop, salsa and hip hop, is beautifully articulated by the entire Westport Country Playhouse cast. The dancing  is festive, funky and fiery. The contemporary feel of the book and its modern slant toward neighborhood life warrants and commands attention. And finally, the overall experience that is "In the Heights" is memorably captured by director/ choreographer Marcos Santana and his multi-talented design team of Adam Koch (set design), Fabian Fidel Aguilar (costume design) and Maria-Cristina Fueste (lighting design) in this pulsating, cutting edge musical entertainment that pulls you right into the world of its colorful inhabitants using the  kinetic energy and exhilaration Lin-Manuel Miranda is famous for.

"In the Heights" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (Westport, CT), now through May 19.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177.

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