Darlene Zoller

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Gotta Dance!

Review of A Chorus Line, Playhouse on Park

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1976, A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante, isn’t much of a play. More even than most musicals, it only works because of the songs—music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban—and the dance routines. That’s fitting, since the play is about the hopes and humiliations, the joys and defeats of trying to maintain a career as a chorus line dancer. I imagine its main claim to distinction, back in the Seventies, was in its humanizing of the usually faceless professionals whose precision forms the undeviating oneness of the quintessential Broadway chorus line. In pursuing that theme, rather relentlessly, the play puts real life on the stage while maintaining the romance with the stage that drives the show’s aspirants.

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

The play’s claim on our attention now, in a mostly non-professional production at Playhouse on Park, directed by co-artistic directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller, with choreography by Zoller, is the way it puts its dancers through paces that impress us with their facility in such an intimate space. We do feel like a fly on the wall of the rehearsal room as try-outs take place, governed by Zach (Eric S. Robertson), who is mostly humorless, detached, and unsympathetic. Even when confronted by a former lover, Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), who has had some star turns without becoming a star and wants to come back to the chorus line, though not back to him, Zach never becomes a character. Cassie fairs a bit better—she at least gets a great dance routine to express herself with—but the lack of real interest in their story is evident in the script itself. All the show’s interest lies in the tell-all autobiographies Zach manages to elicit from his auditioning group.

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

After first pruning a few from the opening routine, Zach has 17 to choose from for a cast of 8, four men and four women. That means a harsh principle of selection will apply, and his coercing of personal info from the dancers can seem awfully manipulative, given that most of them won’t be getting a job. The power play behind theater is always in evidence, and the degree to which the successful candidates here must both expose and efface themselves is what drives the drama.

As do the stories we hear: a few are amusing and upbeat, such as the stellar moves Mike (Alex Polzun) puts into “I Can Do That,” or Bobby (Peej Mele)’s dry take on growing up in Buffalo, or a charming tale of teen cluelessness from Mark (Jared Starkey); others are ironic, as in Val (Andree Buccheri)’s take on the part looks play in a successful stage career (“Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”), or Diana (Bobbi Barricella)’s tale of rejection by an early theater teacher (“Nothing”), or simply comic—Kristine (Mallory Cunninghams)’s song, abetted by her husband Al (Jeremy Seiner), in which she proves she can’t sing (“Sing”); then there’s Sheila (Tracey Mellon)’s tale of a rough home life juxtaposed with the enthrallment of performance (“At the Ballet”), or Paul (Tino Ardiente)’s tale of how his work in a drag review provoked his inadvertent coming-out to his parents. Because the stories keep close to what actual people might reveal of themselves, they manage to avoid outright cliché, though the influence of A Chorus Line is bound to make the stories feel familiar even if you haven’t seen the show before. But the reason to see it again is to see how a new battery of try-outs take to the parts.

Most are well-cast, and most acquit themselves well, though sometimes lyrics become a bit unintelligible, whether that’s due to the quality of the mics each performer wears or to the fact that it’s easy to get breathless when singing and dancing simultaneously. In the end, you may not agree with Zach’s selection of the final 8, but that will have to do with how you respond to the individual characters, and probably the individual actors, and that’s probably the point. Mellon’s Sheila, for instance, doesn’t make the cut, but she’s certainly an asset to this production, while other choices, such as Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), are no-brainers.

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

As a tribute to the trials of playing anonymous parts in big shows, the show draws in viewer sympathy and the rousing number “What We Do For Love,” led by Barricella’s lovely voice, moves beyond any sense of exploitation as we realize that the fictional cast’s participation is not about money or fame or even a secure career; it’s about love of the work and of performing. Without a show in which to show off their skills and talents, these performers have nothing but the mostly drab lives they narrate. The contrast between their humble origins and their talent is the point. The Playhouse production, in using students—several now or recently at the Hartt School—and non-professionals, underscores that the talent to perform is what drives theater. And the relative inexperience of the cast makes the characters’ roles as naive hopefuls all the more convincing, and their talented turns all the more impressive.

 

A Chorus Line
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller
Music Directors: Emmett Drake and Michael Morris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Assistant Choreographer: Spencer Pond; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
June 15—July 31, 2016