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.
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.