Sunday, December 16, 2012

In The Heights - Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda - Book by Aulara Alegría Hudes

By Joe Straw

My father died December 3, 2012, found face down in the mansion of his living room floor, deep in the south.  He was alone, in his home. Five days later in Boyle Heights, I sat quietly waiting for a musical about home to begin. Words cannot express how much the home theme meant to me as I sat there, laughing, loving, crying, and missing home and realizing this night, this theatre, tonight, is the only home I have, and the only home I know.  – Narrator

Most of the shows keep me thinking about the performance weeks after I had seen them.  Funny, as I think back on them, I remember those memories as being black and white.  But, after I saw In The Heights, colors danced in my head, music filled my dreams, and remembrances of home kept me in a warm and lofty place.

Teatro Nuevos Horizontes presents In The Heights - Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda - Book by Qulara Alegría Hudes and directed by Rigo Tejeda is a marvelous production in the small Casa 0101 Theatre, full of life, hope, love, ambition and home.   

I knew In The Heights was coming but questioned the venue as being too small for this show.  And after I checked out the bios, I thought this was possibly an overambitious project for this company.  I was wrong.  It’s fits perfectly and moves with the Latin beat from one moment to the next!  Run!  Por favor! Run!

The play begins in the warm early morning hours of Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan, New York City.  A hooded lone tagger, Graffiti Peter (Chris Marcos) indiscriminately sprays paints on a storefront.  The trouble is that it is Usnavi’s (Michael Torrenueva) storefront and Usnavi comes out swinging, protecting his property and chases him away. 

He lifts the graffiti security metal gate on his bodega, a Hispanic grocery store, and opens for the day.  He runs this bodega with his cousin, Sonny (Phillip Garcia), to an extremely diverse community.

‘I am Usnavi and you prob'ly never heard my name
Reports of my fame
Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
I love it,…”

Usnavi introduces the community, in the song “In The Heights”.  Piragua Guy (Felix Sotelo), Abuela Claudia (Carole Salerno) and the Rosarios who own a cab company across the street.   

Kevin Rosario (Benjamin Perez) stops by every morning to put $20.00 on the lottery. Then he opens Rosario’s cab company that he runs with his wife Camila (Graciela Valderrama) and employee Benny (James Oronoz).  The Rosarios patiently wait the arrival of their daughter Nina (Parissa Koo) who is coming home from Stanford University in California.  Benny is infatuated with Nina.    

Daniela (Vivian Lamolli) and Carla (Chrissi Erickson) stroll in, spreading nasty gossip about their community, and having a great time in the process.  They work in the salon but need to move soon because the rent is going up.

Usnavi’s parents are dead and he is not entirely satisfied living in Washington Heights selling coffee, condoms, and fuzzy dice.  Usnavi dreams of going home to the Dominican Republic.  

The day starts off wrong when, right off the bat, Usnavi finds the refrigerator is not working and the milk is warm.  He implores a grumbling Sonny to fix it despite the fact that he is not trained, is just a kid, and doesn’t want to be electrocuted.  

Still, warm milk is not good for Usnavi who takes pride in his morning coffee.  Abuela Claudia, there to buy a lottery ticket, suggests using condensed milk.

Usnavi runs into Benny who says that he’s a climber, he’s “makin’ moves”, but chides Usnavi with “You still ain’t got no skills”.  More importantly, Benny wants to know if he’s made his move on Vanessa (Melissa Anjose), a gorgeous Latina, before she moves out of Washington Heights.  

The coffee for Vanessa is on the house but Usnavi can’t make himself to ask her out despite the egging’s on of Benny and Sonny.  And Vanessa has no clues as to why she is getting the coffee for free.

Later, a troubled Nina appears, warmly greeting people on the streets, knowing that she has important news to give to her mother and father.  At her parents’ cab company, Benny wants to show her what he has learned while she’s been gone.  Moments later, when her parents arrive, she tells her them she has dropped out of Stanford and has not been going to school for months.

Nina’s parents take it very hard and Kevin Rosario vows to help her because it is in his nature to fix things for Nina no matter what sacrifices the family must make.

"I'm proud to be your father
Cuz you worked so much harder
And you are so much smarter
Then I was at your age." – Kevin

L - R Melissa Anjose, Chrissi Erickson, Parissa Koo, Vivian Lamolli

Nina escapes to the salon to hear the latest gossip in the song “No Me Diga” with Vanessa, Carla, and Daniela. When she tells them that she dropped out of Stanford, they are all shocked.

Later Usnavi finds out that his bodega sold the winning lottery ticket of $96,000.00 and the whole community celebrates of what they would do if they won. It is a beautiful number. And Usnavi only dreams of the white sandy beaches in the Dominican Republic.

Abuela Claudia has the winning ticket and wonders what she will do with the money.  She sings Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith).  It is a lovely number about her life, growing up in Cuba, coming to America and working as a maid.  She asks for guidance with the winning lottery ticket.

I cannot adequately express my feelings of this rich diverse cast that threw their hearts and souls into this performance. It certainly was jaw dropping and eye opening.

Christopher Marcos as Graffiti Pete gives his all dancing all over the stage with his spray cans. It is an interesting role in that at night he is this graffiti freak and during the day “Clark Kent” with baggy pants.

Michael Torrenueva as Usnavi does an incredible job given all he has to do.  And while he has a very nice voice, needs to work on volume. Still Torrenueva is fantastic as Usnavi, funny, warm and has a very nice charm. Usnavi is a fabulist that relays stories of the neighborhood in his own syntax.   His charm is that he lacks a certain manly confidence to get the girl he wants. Holding him back are his dreams of the Dominican Republic, and the white sandy beaches, only to learn a very valuable lesson in the end. One can’t help but stand and cheer at the end of the closing number as he recognizes himself as the rich storyteller of the community. This is his life.  This is who he is.  His performance is remarkable.   

Felix Sotelo as the Piragua Guy has a very nice voice and was just wonderful. His character plays an important role in that he introduces the heat in this community, not only the weather, but the passion of the people that live there as well.  Sotelo sings and dances his way into your heart.

Carole Salerno played Abuela Claudia. While she may have been too young for this role, she did an outstanding job in this show. The character is alone and ailing.  Despite her health, she tries her best to help others because she remembers her own struggles to create a better life in New York.  Salerno’s work shows a passionate commitment to the craft.  She is very enjoyable in this role.  

Chrissi Erickson played Carla the ditsy hairdresser and did a very fine job. She is wonderful to watch but sometimes loses sight of the “thing” that makes her that character from the moment she steps on to the stage to the moment she leaves.  The character just doesn’t get it try as she might.  Still, Erickson was very funny.

Vivian Lamolli played Daniela and has a great stage presence.  As the character, she is sassy and saucy and willing to throw it all out there no matter what. She takes advantage of every moment on stage and all with a remarkable accent as well.  She is enjoyable to watch and it is difficult to take your eyes off of her.

Benjamin Perez plays Kevin, Nina’s father, and has a wonderful stage presence.  As the character, he is a man who only wants the best for his child and is willing to sacrifice anything to make her life better than his.  His song to his daughter is a billet-doux and his performance was truly marvelous.  

Garciela Valderrama plays Camila, Nina’s mother, she also wants what’s best for her daughter but she doesn’t want to follow her husband’s decisions blindly.  She objects to the selling of her business she has helped to build.  And she wants to be in on the business decisions that affect the entire family.   After all, this is a “family” business and she is a strong woman.   Valderrama was terrific.

Phillip Garcia plays Sonny.  He is quite funny with this tuff of hair sticking out of his hat.  Sonny has a dream. He knows where he is going.  But he is just a kid and he is still working out the kid thing.   The growth is visible on stage as he interacts with the community. The older he gets, he finds things starting to click in his life, he understands it, and grows as a human being.  Garcia does a very nice job and has a very interesting look for film and television.

James Oronoz plays Benny and does a very nice job.  Oronoz is very young, or appears young, and he handled this role like an old pro.  Oronoz has a nice voice and did some very remarkable work. As the character Benny wants the girl first, and the success second.  He is conflicted now that the success is not working out and, with his job gone, his girlfriend maybe going as well.  It’s a tough predicament but one that he eventually overcomes.

Melissa Anjose as Vanessa did some very nice work.  She has a very sexy dance number and has a respectable voice that needs a little strengthening so we can hear her.  As she parades around the heights, she knows eyes are following her.  But, she doesn’t want or doesn’t know, or doesn’t care that Usnavi wants her, or maybe Usnavi is not up to her tasks.  She wants to leave Washington Heights and move to a place where she will be better appreciated.  She is unaware she is home and loved.   This is an interesting character and a very interesting performance.

Parissa Koo as Nina has a very nice voice.  It is as pleasant as the name implies.  She is a little girl growing up in a difficult world and she just hasn’t found her place. Her conflict is her passion for school, her family and her boyfriend and being able to handle all three without throwing the world off its axis. Her performance was wonderful in many ways.

Rigo Tejeda did a fantastic job with the direction.  This is a complicated show and getting this all together was a remarkable achievement.  Still there’s more work to be done if there is a consideration to moving it to a bigger house.  The relationships need to be strengthened and moments clarified.  Abuela’s relationship with Usnavi and Sonny needs tightening. Other characters need stronger objectives and those objectives need to be clear the moment they enter. Also, we were missing the heat, or the idea of heat, which culminates when the power goes off and people just go nuts - heat mixed with passion. A little symbolism goes a long way here.  Still these are small quibbles for a tremendous job, well done.  There is a lot of diversity in the cast and it represents a reflection of a community we hardly see on television and feature films.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Music and Lyrics are wonderful and specific to the characters.  The older characters have more traditional songs while the younger ones have rap and upbeat tempos and all of the songs at one time or another blend into a carefully crafted mix of all Latino cultures.

The live In The Heights band include:
Conductor:  Brian Michael
Trumpet:  Serafin Aguilar
Bass: Bill Von Ravensberg
Drums/Percussions:  Michael Partlow
Keyboard:  Brian Michael 

Nicely produced by Olga Durazo and I'm not really sure how all of this was done.  All of this could not have been accomplished without an incredible crew and a wonderful ensemble. 

PUBLICISTS ARE Felipe Agredano and Conrado Terraza                                             
HOUSE MANAGED BY Roberto Castillo
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT by Miguel Angel Muñeton
ENSEMBLE- Andy Eubanks
ENSEMBLE- Brittany Freeth
ENSEMBLE- Shafik Wahhab
ENSEMBLE- Michael Gallardo
ENSEMBLE- Yvonne Senat
ENSEMBLE- Fernando Nunez
ENSEMBLE- Brenda Perez

Run and take a friend that likes fuzzy dice, beautiful women, and an incredible score!

Through December 22, 2012.

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