Thursday 7 May 2015

In The Heights hits hi-notes in rap-time rhythms

Backdrop to the show : North American audiences never tire, it seems, of sentimentalizing the dross of life in the 'hood, wherever it may be. Our immigrant roots and first neighbourhoods, however modest, almost always appear rosier and more charming in the convex distortions of a rearview mirror than they were on the ground, at the time. And particularly so if we but put our memories to music -- original or covers -- then throw in some song-&-dance. Add a dream or two and a bit of new world luck to the score and we jump to our feet in applause.

New York City is particularly ripe for these kinds of pickings (West Side Story; Rent; Avenue Q), and aren't we lucky it is? Because the Y2K birthing of In The Heights set in the Washington Heights Latino barrio of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans is a lively salsa and rap-infused concoction of youthful idealists searching their souls that makes you want to grab some rum and bust a few moves with them on the Stanley stage parquet.

The trajectory of Heights is quite something. It was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his sophomore year (!) at Wesleyan College in 1999. And in but eight short years it had moved through college theatre workshops to an off-Broadway gig and finally to the klieg lights of Times Square & the mecca of Broadway itself. There it was nominated for 13 Tony awards and won four for its music and dance originality. Also a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Not a shabby landing for a sophomore theatre script launched on a home-made rocket I'd say.

A wee knock to tip Heights off its zenith might be the storyline or "book" by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quaint and sentimental to a fault it is. As if Hudes was writing not about his own Gen X experiences in the Heights as gentrification and high rents set in, but about his Boomer-era parents' experiences as immigrants instead. Will Usnavi (pron. oos-NAH-vee) and his adopted Cuban nana Abuela Claudia get their wish of him taking her back to a sandy paradise in his Dominican birthplace? Will hairdresser Vanessa find the money to move to West Village? How about the only non-Latino in the bunch, Benny, will he and Nina live happily-ever-after even though her Papa Kevin seems utterly unwilling to accept a bronceado into their Caribbean cultural embrace? 

No question, there is definitely a 1950's feel about all of this that seems slightly superficial in the dread realities of the post-9/11 epoch we live in -- e.g. that day cured me forever of even one more minute of Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex In The City that was uber-popular at the time. I just couldn't take its silly and vapid contrivances anymore in light of Twin Towers. But I digress.

Heights is so clever and snazzy a piece that the show despite its schmaltz sends folks away more than just mildly entertained. The sold-out house on opening night gave it a wildly enthusiastic standing-o to boot, not just the pro forma kind we've come to expect of local crowds.

Acting highlights galore : The narrative thread is carried in an ongoing rap monologue by said Usnavi (named by his arriving immigrant parents after a passing ship that had "U.S. Navy" stenciled on its hull). Luc Roderique carries that role with eagerness and verve as the proprietor of his late parents' bodega (corner convenience store & deli). The rap rhythms he rhymes off mix joyfully with the non-stop break-dance hip-hop choreo of his 13 brothers and sisters up down over-&-around the Stanley stage, particularly in Act 1. Normally I am not a fan of rap-krap due to the painfully tortured rhyme schemes most rap writers wring out with witless abandon. But I was singularly impressed with lyricist Miranda's creativity in this respect for the Usnavi part. Quite listenable street poetry even for a junior geezer like me.

Usnavi's "apprentice associate" at the bodega is a high school hustler named Sonny (Caleb Di Pomponio) who sports an ironic ball cap with the logo Suburbs emblazoned on it. He is an equal mix of schmooze and moves and chipper charm that are a hoot to watch. As Usnavi's girlfriend-in-the-making, Elena Juatco playing Vanessa is perhaps the most consistently in-character and nuanced performer on stage : great pouts and upstage hand gestures when all eyes are on the downstage troupe. Music show veteran Sharon Crandall as Abuela Claudia was equally terrific in the arthritic slow-mo she was blocked to perform, but her singing brings chills to the spine and the odd tear to the eye. Chris Sams plays Benny with a delightful mix of bravado and humility opposite Kate Blackburn's Nina. His earnest heart captures Nina's Stanford brains in a touching lovers' story.

Production values aplenty : Directed by ACT's Artistic Director Bill Millerd, Heights finds veteran set designer Ted Roberts at one of his many career heights as well. Every centimetre of the Stanley stage was an eye-catching look at what a Brooklyn Heights corner would likely be. From Usnavi's bodega to the hairdressing salon of Daniella (Irene Karas Loeper) to Rosario's Limo office of Kevin (Francisco Trujillo) and Camila (Caitriona Murphy) to Abuela's apartment and the hang-out steps beside it, this is a set to write home about. Early on Sonny tells Usnavi "You stuck to this corner like a streetlight!" In the end Usnavi agrees : "This corner is my destiny / It's had the best of me / This whole time I'm home." The Ted Roberts set makes it all happen.

Choroegrapher and Assistant Director Lisa Stevens does some very imaginative staging and blocking with the troupe as noted above. Particularly in the first act, with Julia Harnett as Carla having perhaps the crispest moves. The celebration of Abuela's 96 G's of lottery winnings was simply superb. The second act, meanwhile, is given over by Miranda and Hudes primarily to a series of ballads and love songs and elegiac eulogies, so considerably less enthusiasm was felt after intermission on the choreography plane save and except the Carnaval del Barrio sequence during the July 4th NYC blackout. 

Carmen Alatorre's costumes were stitch-perfect for each character in their various roles : translucent flimsies for the gals' night club dance sequences; break-dance duds for the guys throughout; more traditional wear for the adults. Only Usnavi's omnipresent naugahyde scally cap struck this eye as a bit odd and off, not sure why.

Musical director Ken Cormier tuned up his band with his customary pizazz and sizzle and perfection, instrument for instrument, note for note. Henry Christian's trumpet stood out crisply but unobtrusively, as did Graham Boyle's drumming. Ed Henderson's guitar riffs during the "Alabanza" song for Abuela were heart-rending. 

Who gonna like : As already pointed out, the ON audience hooted and clapped and cheered on their feet when the "Home!" number chorused at show's end. What makes Heights unique -- in the way the puppets made Avenue Q unique -- are the extended rap monologues and break-dance choreography which are so unlike the straightforward sing-along stuff we are more often accustomed to from Andrew Lloyd Webber et alThis is a fizzy and frothy and sexy salsa evening of energy and enthusiasm by 20 performers that provides some insight, too, of what makes "community" in the heart of a mega-city among people who make friends and neighbours "family". Perfect Spring fare on ACT's mainstage.

Particulars : Conceived -plus- music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes.  At the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street at 12th Avenue through June 7th.  Run-time 2 1/2 hours including intermission.  Go to or phone 604.687.1644 for schedule and ticket information.  

Production crew :  Director Bill Millerd.  Choreographer / Assistant Director Lisa Stevens.  Musical Director / Keyboards Ken Cormier.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Andy Horka.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tessa Gunn.

Performers :  Actors : Michael Antonakos.  Kate Blackburn.  Sharon Crandall.  Michael Culp.  Caleb Di Pomponio.  Julio Fuentes.  Julia Harnett.  Elena Juatco.  Irene Karas Loeper.  Alexandra MacLean.  Caitriona Murphy.  Luc Roderique.  Chris Sams.  Francisco Trujillo.  Musicians :  Graham Boyle.  Henry Christian.  Ken Cormier.  Michael Creber.  Ed Henderson.  Sasha Niechoda.  Andrew Poirier. 


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