Lin-Manuel Miranda

A Beautiful Day in the Barrio

Review of In the Heights, Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse opens its 2019 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, is a lively look back at a certain time and place, full of the kind of evocative nostalgia that becomes the stuff of myth—or of musicals.

We may be forgiven for looking back at the 1990s as a more innocent time. Set in July 1999, when an eighteen-hour blackout hit Washington Heights, where the action takes place, the musical evokes the summer heat and the way a neighborhood meets its daily challenges. There are many subplots—some are romantic, some economic, but most have to do with proving oneself and with learning to meet new challenges.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the center of it all is Usnavi, an outgoing bodega owner, played with eager energy by Rodolfo Soto. His rapping intro to the barrio in the show’s title song is matched by many moving bodies, becomingly clad in Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s eye-catching costumes, and parading in Santana’s dance moves across the atmospheric set by Adam Koch. We’re off to a vivid start.

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the heart of the story is Nina, played with delicate grace by Didi Romero; she’s the girl who made good by earning a scholarship to Stanford, now she’s back with a secret and finds a budding romance with Benny (Gerald Caesar), a worker at her father’s cabstand. Romero brings a lyrical sweetness to her numbers, “Breathe” and “Everything I Know,” and to her duets with Benny that book-end Act 2, “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Nina’s parents, Kevin (Tony Chiroldes) and Camila (Doreen Montalvo), each get a standout number in Act 1 and Act 2, respectively. For Chiroldes, it’s Kevin’s melancholy “Inútil (Useless),” a theme song for fathers everywhere, and for Montalvo it’s “Enough,” Camila’s theme song for mothers tired of family bickering.

Miranda has a knack for putting the stuff of everyday life into pithy song, and he makes sure there’s a place in the show for all aspects of the neighborhood he’s at pains to depict. “Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith),” sung by the neighborhood’s “abuela” Claudia (Blanca Camacho, perfectly cast) is in many ways the theme song for the neighborhood’s mix of immigrants and their descendants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere. One of the most touching moments comes early in Act 2 when Usnavi and Claudia join in acknowledging the “Hundreds of Stories” in the barrio.

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

There’s also a big club number, which lets the kids dress up, to close out Act 1, followed by some violence and chaos during the blackout, and even a willful celebration of Carnaval, led by Daniela (Sandra Marante), who also encapsulates gossip as a lingua franca at her hair salon, with “No Me Diga.” The dances are led by Alison Solomon and make the most of Westport’s wide, deep stage. Domonic Sack’s soundstage, however, seems not quite up to the challenge of Westport’s barnlike space as some of the voices don’t come across with the requisite precision in the mix.

Santana, who choreographed Westport’s Man of La Mancha last season, here gets to take on a more upbeat musical. In the Heights lacks any darker dramatic tension, comprised of the kind of everyday challenges that only glance at issues of racism and the need for political action. Miranda and Alegría Hudes prefer to make the show a love letter to the barrio with the kind of united front common to sit-coms and Disney musicals. Usnavi, as the role Miranda originated, keeps a positive focus and Soto imbues him with a wide-eyed hope that makes him decide that his ticket out can just as easily be a reason to stay.

In the Heights is nothing if not celebratory, giving to an area previously depicted primarily in terms of gangs, crime and drugs a feel for its joy and strong ties—encapsulated by the moving “Everything I Know,” where moving on and taking the past along is key to the immigrants’ experience, handed down as legacy for the young and beautiful inhabitants in the heights.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana

Scenic Design: Adam Koch; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: María-Cristina Fusté; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Music Director: Daniel Green; Associate Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Props Master: Alison Mantilla; Production Stage Manager: Jason Brouillard

Musicians: Aron Caceres, bass; Ernie Fortunato, guitar; Alex Giosa, drums; Daniel Green, keyboard; Christopher Gurr, keyboard II; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Chris Rinaman, trombone; Les Rogers, trumpet; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Cast: Paul Aguirre, Gerald Caesar, Blanca Camacho, Randy Castillo, Tony Chiroldes, Sarita Colon, Edward Cuellar, Jonté Jaurel Culpeppr, Melissa Denise Lopez, Sandra Marante, Doreen Montalvo, Nina Victoria Negron, Ezequiel Pujols, Amanda Robles, Didi Romero, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alison Solomon, Rodolfo Soto

 

Westport Country Playhouse
April 23-May 19, 2019

Reworked "Working" Works at ACT

Review of Working, ACT, Ridgefield

There’s a new kid on the block. ACT, or A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, a new musical theater in Ridgefield, CT, has launched its first full season with a reworking of Stephen Schwartz’s Working. The original debuted in 1977, turning the stories collected by Chicago-radio personality Studs Terkel for his best-selling book on working lives into occasions for song and dance. A later version received an Off-Broadway production in 2012 and featured new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The 2019 version at ACT,  revamped by Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, in consultation with Schwartz, updates elements of the show and, significantly, incorporates material from interviews Levine conducted with Ridgefield workers. The new version offers the best of both worlds: the Broadway polish of the original show together with home-grown local elements.

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

The cast of Working at ACT, directed by Daniel C. Levine: front row: Brad Greer, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz; second row: André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Cooper Grodin (photos by Jeff Butchen)

Schwartz in fact combines both aspects as well: a Ridgefield resident, he is a very successful Broadway composer, with shows like Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked to his credit. He is one of the inspirations behind ACT, and the first three seasons will each feature one of his works as part of the Presenting Stephen Schwartz series. But ACT isn’t only about classic musicals. The second slot of the debut season is taken by Austen’s Pride, a new musical about ever-beloved author Jane Austen that is on its way to Broadway, and the third show at ACT will be the popular musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, winner of the 2005 Tony for Best Book of a Musical.

The theater at ACT features seating higher than the stage, creating a very open playing space for this very energetic play, accessorized with scaffolds and screens as both backdrops and moveable scenery. The ladders and stairs and various props used to suggest different working areas are augmented by a wide variety of multimedia effects, including clips of local workers at work while their voices can be heard ruminating about their lives and their jobs (Scenic Design, Jack Mehler; Media Design, Caite Hevner). It all blends together seamlessly with the songs and speeches presented by the six-member cast. The intimacy of the staging is such that every member of the audience feels directly addressed by the performers, and that makes for a vibrant community feel.

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

Brother Truckers (André Jordan, Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin)

In swift vignettes, we learn something about a range of occupations—tree-cutter, waitress, teacher, firefighter, trucker, mason, care-provider, office worker, fast food deliverer, housewife, housecleaner, millworker, drugstore clerk, tech support, receptionist, deli owner—and can let ourselves by cheered by the fact that there are people who perform these tasks, some of whom are deeply gratified by the nature of the work they do. The point of the show, not without its tensions, is that work is essential to one’s identity and to feeling part of a community, to say nothing of the capitalist system in general. Leisure may be a wonderful thing, but here it’s all about getting down to what needs to be done, for the sake of work itself.

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

Housewives (Laura Woyasz, Zuri Washington, Monica Ramirez)

The cast of three men—Brad Greer, André Jordan, Cooper Grodin—and three women—Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz—maintains familiar gender binaries of the working world: the cleaners are women, the truckers are men. There is a female millworker (Ramirez) and a male caregiver (Jordan), but a bit more mixing might add some new wrinkles. Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” given a soulful rendering by Washington, serves up the plaint of the stay-at-home mom, which may be pertinent again as it was back in the ‘70s. Stay-at-home dads—was that just an ‘80s thing? Another song with a nice sense of occupational anxiety is Woyasz’s believably ethnic teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How,” a sharp aside on how education is always inflected by its setting (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, music by Mary Rodgers).

From the guys, there’s an inspiring speech by Greer as a firefighter; he also, guitar in hand, serves up Carnelia’s “The Mason” as a celebration of folk endurance; in the staging of James Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” the guys are serviced by the female cast members in sexy attire, to let us know that the road has its rewards as well as its regrets. Then there’s “Joe,” Carnelia’s ode to the retiree (Grodin) whose life without work is a struggle to maintain interest. The man’s failing health segues nicely into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “A Very Good Day,” a song for caregivers and nannies which strikes a plaintive note about doing the work that family members shirk.

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

The firefighter (Brad Greer)

With such a range of musical collaborators, the songs are varied in their styles, but all land with a snap, and the unseen musicians pack a punch in Dan Pardo’s arrangements for what is essentially a rock band. Particularly memorable, as a blend of movement and song, are Schwartz’s “It’s an Art,” a tribute to the finesse of waitressing led by Woyasz, and, incorporating significant media effects, “Brother Trucker” and Miranda’s “Delivery.” Other songs, such as Schwartz’s potentially mawkish “Fathers and Sons,” work well in context: here, we’ve just heard three Ridgefield students talking about their families, their studies, and their hopes for their own professional futures.

Formerly a two-act show, the current version plays under 90 minutes with no intermission. And so the two closers of the respective acts follow one another to form the finale. This means that the rueful sense of lost opportunities in Micki Grant’s “If I Could’ve Been” is immediately parried by Carnelia’s “Something to Point to.” The juxtaposition is telling. Whatever we become, in this world, there may be a sense, perhaps known to none but ourselves, of what we might have been or wanted to be; however that plays out, it’s the reality principle that ultimately triumphs in Working, where you are what you do.

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

The cast of Working, as millworkers, top to bottom: Cooper Grodin, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez

It’s rare enough to find the workers of non-glamorous careers celebrated. In our era of celebrity for the sake of celebrity, learning how regular people live can be a worthwhile antidote. There ought to be school trips to see Working, if only to touch base with modern society’s bedrock. And the show isn’t only an occasion for admiring lives given over to workaday jobs, director Daniel C. Levine’s Working is a snappy example of musical theater that really works.

Working: A Musical
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
With additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg and Daniel C. Levine
Songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor
Directed by Daniel C. Levine

Choreography: Chip Abbott; Music Director: Dan Pardo; Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Costume Design: Brenda Phelps; Scenic and Lighting Design: Jack Mehler; Media Design: Caite Hevner; Sound Design: John Salutz; Wig Design and Hair Supervision: Liz Printz; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Michael Seelbach; Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Brad Greer, Cooper Grodin, André Jordan, Monica Ramirez, Zuri Washington, Laura Woyasz

Musicians: Dan Pardo, conductor/keyboard; Matt Hinckley, electric and acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric and acoustic bass; Dennis Arcano, drums and percussion

ACT of Connecticut
February 14-March 10, 2019

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