Engeman Theater soars to new heights in latest production
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.
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.
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