Tags Posts tagged with "In the Heights"

In the Heights

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./A24

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Before there was Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda burst onto the scene with the wholly personal In the Heights. A celebration of a largely Dominican community living in Washington Heights, Miranda provided music and lyrics and starred as Usnavi. The show was an instant hit with only minor carping on the book. The production ran from March 9, 2009, through January 9, 2011, for 1,184 performances. 

The show received thirteen Tony Award nominations and won for Best Musical as well as Best Musical Score (Miranda), Best Choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler), and Best Orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman). The original cast recording received a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Dozens of subsequent companies — including multiple productions in Spanish — have been seen in the Philippines, Panama, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Peru, Denmark, and many other places. 

After a false start in November 2008 (with cancellation in 2011), it was announced in May 2016 that Miranda would co-produce the film with Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of Weinstein’s sexual misconduct charges, he was removed as the producer on the film, and Warner Bros. acquired the production.

The history of stage-to-screen musicals is an uneven one. For every Music Man and Sound of Music, there is an Annie or a Rent. Whether it is to one’s taste, Grease proved to be an enduring hit. Disasters have included Camelot, A Little Night Music, and Les Misérables. Genre connoisseurs argue the faults and merits of the cinematic incarnations of A Chorus Line and Into the Woods. Over the last few years, there has been a resurgence with mixed results: the brilliant reimagining of Chicago, the head-scratching Hairspray, the train wreck Cats. Being released this December is Stephen Spielberg’s much-anticipated remake of West Side Story.

It all comes down to whether the musical is making a joyous noise — or just making noise. 

Does In the Heights live up to expectations? Oh, yes. That and much more. While it does not reinvent the genre, the film’s sheer exuberance is a celebration of both “a” community and this particular community.

The basic plot follows two couples. Usnavi, a bodega manager, pines for aspiring fashion designer Vanessa, who works in a local salon. Benny is a dispatcher in love with his boss’s daughter, Nina, who has just returned from Stanford, where she must confess that she dropped out. What follows is three days leading up to a blackout and its aftermath. 

While Vanessa wants to move downtown, Usnavi struggles with a desire to rebuild his father’s restaurant in the Dominican Republic. Nina grapples with her experience in college and the events that led up to her return. In the Heights is equally a portrayal of the neighborhood — the connections, the gossip, the struggle, the pride — as it is the romance. If anything, the personal relationships are less engaging than the exploration of identity.

The film has departed from the Broadway production, adjusting multiple plot points for streamlining purposes. Some of the changes improve the narrative; others are less successful. Small cavils can be launched at the screenplay, which is serviceable but never rises to the level of the music and choreography. New issues — most notably that of the Dreamers — are introduced. Nina also speaks of a horrible racist experience she endured at Stanford. It is brought up and then dropped. If the writers choose to take on such important and complicated topics, the results deserve deeper exploration. 

In addition, some of the scenes go on longer than necessary. (A dinner party meanders, never quite focusing.) “It Won’t Be Long Now”— one of the best numbers — is oddly broken up. The framing device of Usnavi telling the story in flashback seems to undermine the immediacy. But these are minor quibbles on what is pure joy. 

John M. Chu directs the film with an eye for detail and an energetic but never rushed pace; the nearly two and a half hour running times flies. But it is Christopher Scott’s spectacular choreography that dominates. His work is bold, fearless, and epic, often encompassing hundreds of dancers. His dances will enter the annals of movie musical history (the climactic ballet in An American in Paris, the rooftop “America” in West Side Story, the barn-raising in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the opening to La La Land, just about any moment in Singin’ in the Rain, etc.)

The combination of old-fashioned musical theatre and contemporary style are perfectly blended. The title number sets the tone for the stunning production numbers to follow. Most notably are “No Me Diga” (a wryly hilarious and delightful number in the salon), “96,000” (a swimming pool blockbuster with more than a few shades of Busby Berkley), the haunting and jaw-dropping “Paciencia y Fe” (which will be referred to in perpetuity as “the subway song”), and the finale-like “Carnival del Barrio,” the celebrates rejoices at communities within communities. (Even the “small” numbers are equally impressive, especially Nina’s “Breathe.” Certainly, credit should be given to Chu, who knows when to pull back.)

The cast is uniformly excellent, all exceptionally effortless singers and dancers whose performances are grounded in truth. They make the transition from dialogue to singing seem natural, often something that feels disjointed or, worse, falls flat in the movies. Anthony Ramos delivers a heartfelt Usnavi, both anchor and core to the story. He is matched by Melissa Barrera’s strong but conflicted Vanessa. Corey Hawkins brings warmth and vulnerability to Benny. Leslie Grace’s Nina shows the strength and struggle of someone trying to both go forward in her life but honor her past. Her scenes with the gifted Jimmy Smits as her father are effectively complicated. (Smits shows a pleasant singing voice in his few vocal moments.) 

Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s Mimi in Rent) finds humor and dimension in Daniela, the salon owner, who aspires for grander things. Olga Merediz, the only major holdover from the Broadway production, embodies matriarch “Abuela” Claudia with love and light. As Usanvi’s clerk Sonny, Gregory Dia IV easily mixes charm and “chutzpah” with a melancholic underpinning. Miranda is terrific as Piragüero, the Piragua Guy (shaved ice). While it is a small turn, his confrontation with the Mr. Softee vendor plays as the film’s cameo/Easter Egg highlight.

Usnavi speaks of sueñito — the idea of “little dreams.” The residents of this world all have them. But what comes through is that ultimately, they are not little. The dreams are big and powerful, honest and revelatory. In the Heights immerses the viewer in these hopes in a film that somehow manages to be both intimate and spectacular. This is the feel-good movie for which we have been waiting. While available on HBO Max, In the Heights is one of the best reasons to leave your couch behind and venture out to enjoy this bright shining jewel. Rated PG-13.

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

Samantha Rosario with the cast of ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

In the theater when the aesthetic  and technical coalesce, it engenders a happy marriage of entertainment; a delight to the audience. Such a meld was achieved at Oakdale’s CMPAC’s production of “In the Heights” that opened to a sold-out house on Jan. 16.

The “Heights” are Washington Heights in Manhattan and those who live there are Puerto Rican and/or Dominican. They are poverty stricken but struggle to make the most of it. There is plenty of Spanish spoken and sung,  but the language that carries the show along is English in the form of rap. This trigger-tongue  delivery in rhyming (and sometimes not rhyming) doublets with occasional tercets is handled in a talk-sing manner best by the lead Joseph Gonzalez with surprising articulation. These high-speed passages are long, yet his strong tenor delivered them handily. They may have been enunciated with the speed of an M-4 with the safety off, but each “bullet” was clearly on target.

Set design was by Jenn Hocker. She constructed a suggestion of the Heights; its stores, apartments, streets, laundry, fire escapes and an upstage center suggestion of the Manhattan Bridge … geographically incongruent but piercingly pertinent. Lighting was handled by Allison Weinberger with remarkable success, even down to a dance number done in the dark with flashlights.

Which brings us to choreographer M.E. Junge. A mainstay on the Main Stage, “ME” is a highly talented terpsichorean artist. In this show she affected a sometimes rapid, sometimes nuanced evolution on the boards, replete with the staccato, offbeat Latin rhythms to a masterful degree.

Overall direction was by Michael Mehmet who was confronted with the daunting task of creating individuation to a massive cast as well as blocking each group and individual actor. His long list of talents enabled him to come through handsomely.

Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

A live eight-man pit band was headed by Anthony Brindisi with Laura Mitrache and Brindisi on keyboards, Patrick Lehosky on percussion, Brett Beiersdorfer on drums, Kevin Merkel on trumpet, Andrew Lenahan on reeds, John Snyder on bass and Conrad Scuza on trombone. This crew handled the complexities of the Latin rhythms most expertly. In the standard tempi of the “North American” songs they were great, but when it went “Caribbean” they were noteworthy.

Back on the boards. We have Leyland Patrick as Benny who with Gina Morgigno as Nina sing “Benny’s Dispatch” and “When You’re Home” with the whole company. In Act II they are back with “When the Sun Goes Down,” musical trifecta for them.

No review would be complete without mentioning the role of Daniela played to the hilt by Erica Giglio. Her enormous soprano, bursting with far-reaching range, brought down the house both with twin weapons of sarcastic spoken lines and dominant singing voice. One cannot neglect her talented dance abilities. She led the whole company in “Alabanza” and “Carnaval del Barrio” and shone in “No Me Diga” with Nina, Carla (Christina Martinez) and Vanessa (Samantha Rosario).

Kevin is a unique part. He is the aging paterfamilias and is gifted with a pleasing, plangent romantic tenor by Charlie Rivera. His “Inutil”  in Act I and “Atencion” in Act II were tributes to his voice capabilities. A whole page could be devoted to Ariana Valdes as Abuela. She is opera-trained and, with this background the powerful soprano in a solo number about a winning lottery ticket, brought a deserved standing ovation.

The Ensemble comprising Liza Aquilino, Savannah Beckford, Alex Esquivel, Kin-Zale Jackson, Matthew Kadam, Michelle LaBozzetta, Tori Lewis and Edward Martinez were the aesthetic armature of it all along with Luke Rosario as Sonny; Kyle Perry as Piragua Guy; Lori Beth Belkin as Camilla; and Paul Edme as Grafitti Pete. When the Playbill read “Company” this group filled the spot with expertise rarely seen in regional theater.

This effort actually was an example of what CMPAC is capable of theatrically. The amalgam of expert management and a high-grade talent puts this company in the foreground, downstage center, the house ringing with applause.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “In the Heights” through Feb. 7. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.