SALSA AND HIP HOP CRACKLE WITH ENERGY IN THE SEARCH FOR HOME, IS SUPERB AT UCLA’s
STUDENT PRODUCED THEATRE COMPANY
UCLA Hooligan Theatre company continues their 11th season with their spring musical IN THE HEIGHTS with a sold out weekend at the campus Little Theatre. Hooligan is the largest student run theatre company at the Westwood Campus and working with mostly non theatre arts majors, they produced a first rate production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical IN THE HEIGHTS. Miranda is the number one topic this theatre season in NY with his hit HAMILTON The Musical which is currently sold out in NY through 2017. The Hooligan company brings together over 40 talented students to make this one of the best HEIGHTS I have seen since the National tour. Directed by the smart Juan Olivares and choreographer Tricia Gunter they both combine power, passion and skill to produce an affecting story of dreamers, community and a search for home.
Every person in the cast and creative team led by producers Aaron Fish and Ariana Garcia bring HEIGHTS the passion and energy to the Macgowan Little Theatre. HEIGHTS is a contemporary tale deeply rooted in Hispanic culture and told in part through salsa and hip hop, with classic ballads and dance production numbers. It brings in a diverse, younger audience, that sold out all five performances The universality of its themes transcends age much as Fiddler On The Roof has for nearly 55 years. HEIGHTS was the Cinderella story at the 2008 Tony Awards where it swept best musical, score, choreography, and orchestrations. It was grown slowly by the charismatic composer, lyricist, actor Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. There are parallels between Heights and West Side Story. Both tell New York City immigrant stories.
The story is set during three days on a sweltering July 4th weekend in the Washington Heights’ barrio, not quite a melting pot of first- and second-generation Americans with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Our hero-narrator is Usnavi, the owner of a bodega that serves as the center of a tight-knit community, played by the multi talented Oscar Tsukayama. He introduces us to a history of three generations of close knit neighbors with their own related stories. Tsukayama is charismatic as rapper singer dancer Usnavi. He opens the story with the main song “In the Heights” with the 40 member company, it was impressive. Tsukayama is a tour de force in the show, along with the other leads: Dana Gaier and Kinshuk Sen who play the two lovers Nina and Benny, they both have strong voices and shine in “When The Sun Goes Down” and “When You Are Home”. Tsukayama and cast are impressive in dance and energy in the song “96,000”. Sonny, Usnavi’s headstrong cousin is played by the skilled Chino Barrios, who complements Tsukayama with his dance skills. “Benny’s Dispatch” is a highlight of the first Act. The brilliant Vanessa Magula as Vanessa has one of the best voices in this company and plays Usnavi’s love interest, Tsukayama and Magula are superb in the song “Champagne”.
Sitting on her porch the nurturing Abuela Claudia played by the clever Emily Lane who serves as the community’s surrogate mother, especially to the orphaned Usnavi and his cousin Sonny. Down the way is the limousine/car service owned by first-generation immigrants Kevin and Camilla Rosario wonderfully played by Christopher Sword and Stephanie Jauregui the two show their accomplished acting as they hear the news of their daughter failed attempt at Stanford University. Sword is powerful during his solo “Inutil” this actor shows his polished skills, he was a bit over the top at times but his stage timing is very professional. Some other exemplary feature performances include Braulio Sepulveda as Piragua guy, Sepulveda shows some sterling energy in this role and his delightful “Piragua” with the ensemble is splendid. Graffiti Pete opens the show with a hip hop dance, Pete, is a street hustler with incredible dance moves and a hidden artistic talent her spray cans are well crafted by easy moving Jelissa Sparks. The very talented dancer Mihir Kumar is cast as Jose and shows off his ballet and Jazz dance skills with a clever hip hop mix choreographed by Tricia Gunter. Her work shines throughout the two hour performance, Gunter created a dance team core to keep the movement and dance an important part of the story. Ava Adlpavar, Shilah Mcguinness and Gloria Sandoval play the feature women in the cast and are all superb. With over 40 people on stage both Olivares and Gunter keep the pace busy yet no one gets lost in the huge dance numbers.
The story suddenly turns when Usnavi discovers that he has sold a winning lottery ticket to someone in the neighborhood. The genius of Miranda and writer Hudes is that the jackpot isn’t over the top just $96,000 - enough money to enable the dreams of dreamers rebooting their lives. Director Olivares skill at musical staging is matched by the outstanding work of Gunter who built her choreography on classic hip hop and let some of her leads improv some moves especially Tsukayama who you can see flipping and tumbling in the background of the larger numbers. It is easy to see how life in the community is always churning in the background. Cynthia Ayala lighting picks out the characters at the center of the story, the lighting is colorful and bright, with clever cues during the firstworks scene. The famous NY blackout is part of the story and Ayala keeps the lights down as the actors carry candles and flashlights, it looked great. Caroline Skubik designed the colorful costumes, yet keeps them simple and all the men in hip hop class and the women dressed for the heatwave, rich with community. The set was warm and had all the main elements of the neighborhood designed by Amy Cummings. Music director Joey Galasso assembled an amazing sound of musicians for his pit and included the perfect percussion section headed by Danta Luna, Meenah Alam, and Austin Zwickel. Also impressive is the bass player Rory Snivey, Guitar Noah Stier and on Keyboard Alonso Pirio and the excellent Charlie Bond. The 14 member orchestra filled the little theatre with Miranda’s music, rap and sounds. The Spanish mix and dialect of each of the leads was authentic and assistant directors Ana Karina and Jon Ramirez coached the cast for the perfect sound.
The entire cast – whose ethnic origins reflect an United Nations of Hispanic countries with a mix of UCLA co-ed is energized simply by doing a play that puts their all culture on a mainstream stage for their families and friends to see. Hooligan Theatre Company is a first rate student run troop of talent that keeps the UCLA spirit of theatre arts a step up. This production closed April 10th after five sold out standing O performances. The audience of students and community were on their feet at the end of each performance. The Hooligans next show ALMOST MAINE opens May 27th at the Fowler Theatre at UCLA.
HOOLIGAN THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS
IN THE HEIGHTS
By Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Juan Olivares, Choreographer Tricia Gunter,
Music Director Joey Galasso
For HTC Produced by Aaron Fish and Ariana Garcia,
Production Manager Joey Galasso.
April 8 - 10th at UCLA Little Theatre
For more information about HTC and tickets for future shows