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Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, takes on his first major film role in ‘Mary Poppins Returns.’ Photo by Jay Maidment/Disney

By Heidi Sutton

Fifty-four years after Disney’s beloved “Mary Poppins” magically dropped out of the sky and into our lives, its long-awaited sequel arrived at local theaters for the holidays.

Titled “Mary Poppins Returns,” the movie is based on the second book in the Mary Poppins series by author P. L. Travers — “Mary Poppins Comes Back.” Co-starring Emily Blunt (“Girl on the Train,” “A Quiet Place”) as Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) as Jack the lamplighter, it picks up the story 25 years later in 1935.

Recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives in London at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) and longtime housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) while Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) lives in a flat across town. Set during the Great Slump, the family home is in danger of being repossessed unless a loan can be paid back in five days.

While Jane and Michael search frantically for their father’s bank shares, the children spend the day in the park and come home with — who else — Mary Poppins! “I was flying a kite and it got caught on a nanny!” exclaims Georgie. 

“I’ve come to look after the Banks children” says Mary. However, while Michael’s children go on all kinds of magical adventures, it is Michael and Jane who are ultimately watched over by their old friend.

Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods”), with screenplay by David Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Life of Pi”), the film features a fresh score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and new dance numbers, animation scenes and cameo appearances by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Karen Dotrice (the original Jane), Colin Firth and, at 91 years old, a tap-dancing Dick Van Dyke.

In the title role Blunt is practically perfect in the way she captures Mary Poppins’ mannerisms, and Lin-Manuel Miranda steals every scene in his first major film role. However, it is the many songs (over 25 in all), from the undersea adventure “Can You Imagine That?,” the emotional lullaby “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” the big dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (a companion piece to “Step in Time”), Miranda’s Hamilton-esque rap in “A Cover Is Not the Book” and the finale, “Nowhere to Go But Up” that are the heart of the film.

There are many wonderful aspects to this film — all of the actors are terrific; the singing, dancing and choreography are amazing; and the sets are impressive. That being said, I found it hard to fall in love with this film. Maybe because I kept comparing it to the original, but I found the plot to be thin and rushed somehow — as if it had run over the allotted time and then was edited too much. For a Disney film, it didn’t feel magical enough and failed to capture the charm of its predecessor.

Rated PG, “Mary Poppins Returns” is now playing in local theaters. Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes.

By Rita J. Egan

It may be chilly outside, but things are heating up inside the John W. Engeman Theater. The Northport venue debuted its production of “In the Heights” on March 15, and with a talented cast and the energetic sounds of salsa, reggaeton, merengue and hip hop, audience members are guaranteed a fun, hot night on the town.

Before he shared the story of Alexander Hamilton through rap and song in “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda created this spirited musical, which ran from 2008 to 2011 on Broadway and won four Tony Awards.

A love letter to Latinos who live in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the story takes place during July Fourth weekend on one city block and centers around bodega owner Usnavi and his neighbors. While the play includes a good deal of reality like money issues, the death of loved ones and the sacrifices one must make for a better life, its main themes are about love and hope, and most important of all, having patience and faith.

With book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Miranda, through dialogue and song “In the Heights” reveals the economic struggles of Usnavi and his fellow business owners, car service proprietors Kevin and Camila Rosario and beauty salon owner Daniela.

Directed by Paul Stancato, the musical throws in romance as Usnavi pines away for the beautiful Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, and the Rosarios’ daughter Nina and their employee Benny engage in a forbidden romance. As the audience gets a peek into the heartache of Usnavi losing his parents at an early age, Vanessa yearning to move downtown, the bright Nina losing her college scholarship and the love felt for the neighborhood’s adopted grandmother, Claudia, one can’t help but feel a part of this close-knit community.

Spiro Marcos as Usnavi does a fine job filling big shoes (the role was originally played by Miranda on Broadway). The actor skillfully uses rap during most of his numbers to tell the story. Marcos is in touch with Usnavi’s softer side, making it impossible not to root for him as he longs for Vanessa and dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, his birthplace, while trying to keep the bodega afloat.

Cherry Torres and Josh Marin in a scene from ‘In the Heights’

Josh Marin is charming as Benny, and Cherry Torres is sweet and lovely as Nina. The two have a good amount of on-stage chemistry during their romantic scenes, which is front and center during the song “Sunrise” where they sing beautifully together. Chiara Trentalange balances a bit of sass and attitude with a touch of softness to deliver a Vanessa who may be determined to put her neighborhood behind her, but audience members can’t help but like her, too.

Tami Dahbura is endearing as Abuela Claudia, while Paul Aquirre and Shadia Fairuz are perfect together as Kevin and Camila. Scheherazade Quiroga is perfect as the spunky Daniela and delivers comedic lines perfectly. Iliana Garcia is refreshing as naïve hairdresser Carla, and Vincent Ortega is delightful as the Piragua Guy, especially during his number “Piragua” and its reprise. Nick Martinez, as Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny, and Danny Lopez, as Graffiti Pete, do a nice job adding some comic relief throughout the production.

The dancers are also among the stars in the show. Skillfully choreographed by Sandalio Alvarez, they energetically and masterfully transfer from salsa, merengue, reggaeton and hip hop dance steps.

The music in the production is top notch and is a mix of dance tunes that will have audience members wanting to dance in the aisles and emotional ballads for which some may need tissues. The band, led by conductor Alec Bart, does a superb job flawlessly moving from one musical genre to another, and the singers also do an excellent job.

During the first act, Torres expertly uses her vocal talents to perform an emotion-evoking version of “Breathe.” It is during this number audience members discover her time at Stanford University didn’t work out for her, and she now feels lost not knowing what to do with her life.

Aguirre’s number “Inútil” is just as heartbreaking as his character feels useless after discovering his daughter didn’t come to him to help her pay for school. Fairuz also displays strong vocals during the song “Siempre.”

Trentalange sings lead on the upbeat song “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Marcos and Martinez. The actress has fun with the song and her vocals are great.

Spiro Marcos (Usnavi) and Tami Dahbura (Abuela Claudia)

Dahbura moves around convincingly like a frail grandmother, and then surprises audience members with her incredible and emotional vocals during “Paciencia y Fe.” Abuela Claudia remembers her youth in Cuba and arriving in the United States, during the song. Her mother would always remind her to have patience and faith, advice Claudia continues to share with those she loves.

During the first act, the ensemble performs “96,000” as they sing about what it would be like to win Lotto. With the singers emanating so much energy, one can’t help but feel optimistic for them.

Quiroga gets the party started with “Carnaval del Barrio” and her vocals are outstanding. The high-energy song with exceptional dancing is sensational. It is soon followed by “Alabanza” where Torres sweetly sings the first lines and then the song builds up to a powerful number featuring the whole cast. Both performed during the second act are show stoppers.

Spanish is sprinkled throughout the dialogue and lyrics of “In the Heights” to add authenticity, but are always followed by English translations, or the lines are delivered with gestures that make things clear for those who don’t understand the language.

Many may want to see this musical because they are curious about Miranda’s earlier work, but “In the Heights” is an entertaining look into the life of Latinos in New York City and a beautiful tribute to the music that was brought to the United States from the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The John W. Engeman Theater, located at 250 Main Street, Northport presents “In the Heights” through April 29. Running time is approximately 2.5 hours and tickets are $73; $78 for Saturday evening performances. Free valet parking is available. For more information, please call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

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It’s a great history lesson. It’s a gymnastic dance performance. It’s a riveting narrative. It’s a clever rap session. It’s an authentic hip-hop musical, almost like an opera. It’s a whirlwind of energy. And it’s a remarkably true story. What is it? It’s “Hamilton,” the hottest Broadway show in many years.

We know that just about everything that is endlessly hyped usually disappoints. Just two things immediately come to my mind where for me there was no let down: the Grand Canyon and “Hamilton.” Now the anticipation ratcheted up was enormous. I bought the tickets when my friend turned 90 years old. It seemed like an appropriate birthday present, this story from the deep past. After all, for many dinners and evenings she had kept me fascinated with her eyewitness retelling of history from the first half of the 20th century. Now we were both going to see early American history come alive on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Let it be told that my friend will shortly be 92. Yes, she and I waited almost two years to get in to see this show. I also invited my 15-year-old granddaughter and another friend a generation younger than I to join us. With that span in ages, we were going to get an accurate demographic spectrum of reactions.

We LOVED it, all of us, from the opening number to the last sad moments of Hamilton’s life. It was witty, it was impassioned, it was fun, it was sexy, it was literate, it was tragic and it was wonderfully written, sung, acted, costumed and staged.

In truth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton” (2004), had great material to work with. Hamilton’s life had everything a playwright could have asked for, with perfect timing now for such a story. Hamilton, born out of wedlock in the mid-1750s (exact year uncertain) and orphaned when his mother died in 1768, comes as penniless immigrant from the Caribbean to make his way. He had distinguished himself through his writing at an early age, and men of means sent him to New York. He arrived in the midst of the pre-Revolutionary tumult, was accepted at King’s College (now Columbia University), met some of the key figures of the day and became George Washington’s aide-de-camp, in good part because he spoke French and could translate between Washington and his French ally.

He fought against the British at Yorktown in 1781, married the second daughter of a rich New Yorker, authored the majority of The Federalist Papers, became a successful lawyer, went on to be the first secretary of the treasury, from which position he established the banking system of the nascent United States, was blackmailed in what was one of the nation’s first sex scandals, and ultimately died from a bullet fired by his longtime rival, Vice President Aaron Burr, during a duel on a strip of land above the Hudson in Weehawken. If it sounds like a peripatetic life, that certainly describes the fierce energy of the play about him.

I had the same feeling about this play as I did so many years ago when “My Fair Lady” with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews ended, that I had just witnessed some sort of breakthrough Broadway event. And as the characters of “Hamilton,” the Founding Fathers, come alive the way they did in that other excellent historic play, “1776,” we recognized them for their magnificent talents and their all-too-human faults.

The erudite New York Times drama critic, Ben Brantley, had this to say about the play when it opened on Broadway in August 2015. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But ‘Hamilton’ … might just about be worth it.”

So it’s expensive (unless you win tickets through the lottery that has been set up), it requires patience to wait for the actual performance date on the ticket, and most of the original cast is long gone. But none of that matters. There was never a marquee name connected with the show, unless it was that of Miranda. But his acting wasn’t the reason to go, it was his writing: music, words and creativity. And all that is still there, a wonderful respite from the politics of today.

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