Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review of "In the Heights"

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics to Hamilton he crafted the musical In the Heights.  The show won numerous Tony Awards when it premiered in 2008, including Best Musical and Best Score.  The show is now receiving a stirring production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.

The action centers on a few days in the area of upper Manhattan, above the George Washington Bridge, known as The Heights.  A mixed, primarily Latino district, we meet the czst in the opening number, “In the Heights.”  There is Usnavi and his cousin Sonny, who run a local bodega, the women who run the neighborhood beauty salon, the husband (Kevin) and wife (Camilla), who operate a local car service, their high-spirited employee, Benny; Abuela, the grandmotherly soul of the neighborhood; and others.  Problems arise—Nina, the scholarship daughter of Kevin and Camilla, has dropped out of Stanford University; the hair dresser shop is closing, relationships are starting and ending, a lottery ticket changes lives; and there’s a city-wide blackout for good measure.
Cast members of "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with a simple, playful narrative, artfully weaves the various storylines together, creating an organic earthiness and intuitive ebb and flow to the action.  The focus, and strength of the show, is on the relationships of the close-knit neighborhood.  The characters are well-drawn and resolute.

Like his score for Hamilton, the songs within the musical are a fusion of rap and hip-hop and standard theatrical melodies that include soaring, heartfelt ballads, character driven numbers, and uptempo fare that seethe with urgency and vitality.  They are backed by an impressive pit band, which includes 2018 Connecticut Critics Circle honoree, Billy Bivona, who was recognized for his musical composition for last years production of Constellations at Theaterworks. The one drawback on opening night was the sound mix, which made it difficult to understand some of the song lyrics, especially the fast-paced rhymes.  Hopefully, that issue has been corrected.
Nick Pallazo as Sonny, Sophia Introna as Vanessa, and Niko Touros as Usnavi from "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The direction by Sean Harris is assured and brings out the joy and ebullience of the production.  He skillfully utilizes the unique performance space of the Playhouse’s stage to thoroughly incorporate all the musical’s elements into a gratifying whole.  Some of the directorial flourishes, however, are not totally necessary, such as members of the ensemble dancing in the aisles.  Less can be more.

Choreographer Darlene Zoller has mixed street-wise routines with more traditional Broadway dance numbers.  There is an exuberance and energy from the young cast members that is infectious and gives the audience a feel for the Latino culture.
Analise Rios as Nina, Leyland Patrick as Benny, JL Rey as Kevin Rosario, and Stephanie Pope as Camila Rosario from "In the Heights."  Photo courtesy of Curt Henderson.
The cast, for the most part, delivers finely tuned performances.  Niko Touros’ Usnavi is animated and assured with an optimism and exuberance that is infectious.   He is the center of the musical and captures the charisma of the role and the admiration and respect from the other characters.  Nick Palazzo, playing Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny, is a cut-up with the denizens of the street.  He is thoroughly loyal and a good friend.  The two have a genuine bond and love for each other.  Sophia Introna is determined and self-confident as Vanessa, Usnav’s love interest and one of the three beauty salon ladies.  Along with the other two, Carla (Paige Buade) and Daniela (Sandra Marante), they form a feisty, caring triumvirate.  While impassioned and zestful in their roles, they could have been more impassioned and zestful in their scenes together.  Ms. Marante, nevertheless, stands out with a lively, fervent performance.  She also possesses a powerful singing voice.  Leyland Patrick (Benny) and Analise Rios (Nina) are satisfying as the young lovers, even though the chemistry between them is muted. JL Rey (Kevin) and Stephanie Pope (Camila) add an assured, supportive, and multi-layered parental presence to the show.  Amy Jo Phiilips is laudable as Abuela, the elder stateswoman of the block who provides knowing guidance, stability, and comfort to the residents.

Aaron Hochheiser’s Lighting Design adds emphasis and a visual articulation to the musical.  His creation of fireworks are unpretentious, yet highly effective.

In the Heights, a worthwhile summer show, playing at Playhouse on Park through July 29th.

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