UNIVERSAL HOPE AND THE AMERICAN DREAM BRING SHEER ENERGY TO THIS AMAZING CAST OF HIP HOP AND LOVE.
Washington Heights comes to Livermore for the fall season, as Tri Valley Rep opens their 33rd season with the stylish IN THE HEIGHTS at the Bankhead stage through Nov 6th. "Paciencia y fe" is one of the main messages that winds it way throughout this exciting and energetic production of "HEIGHTS”. You don't need to speak Spanish to know that it means "patience and faith." This philosophy is passed onto Usnavi, the main character of the show and bodega owner, right from the start from his "abuela", who is a surrogate grandmother to him. Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON) book by Ouiara Alegria Hudes, this is his first musical IN THE HEIGHTS. Miranda is the number one topic this theatre season in New York and San Francisco as his hit “Hamilton The Musical” is set to open in the Bay Area spring of 2017.
The Tri Valley company brings together over 26 talented actors to make this one of the better HEIGHTS I have seen since it has been staged here in the Bay Area. Directed and choreographed by the creative Christina Lazo she says “I was blown away by the sheer energy and vitality of (this musical). The look and sound of the show was like nothing I had seen before.” Lazo combines power, passion and skill to produce an affecting story of dreamers, community and a search for home.
IN THE HEIGHTS is a millennial 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 local theatre needs to inspire. 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, and a Grammy for best sound track. It was grown slowly by the charismatic composer/lyricist/star Miranda and book by Hudes. There are parallels between HEIGHTS and West Side Story. Both tell New York City immigrant stories. The first scene immediately sets the tone for what is to come, high energy dance numbers, freestyle rap, strong singing and salsa music. This is a non stop, slice of life show where you immediately feel how it is to live in the Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City or in any Hispanic area in the US.
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 dynamic Alexander Gomez. He introduces us to a history of three generations of close knit neighbors with their own interrelated stories. Gomez brings his best rap skills and commanding voice giving Usnavi a more charming personality. He opens the story with the main song “In the Heights” with the entire company dancing Lazo’s hip choreography that moves show into your heart.
The first scene immediately sets the tone of this wonderful musical. This show is a big undertaking for Lazo and she brings it off extraordinarily well. Usnavi opens his little store front where all the major characters are introduced. Nina Rosario, superbly played by Cheyenne Wells, is home from Stanford University and afraid to tell her parents that she dropped out and lost her scholarship. She sings the sweet “Breathe” where her voice shines as she tells the story of her first year at the University.
Wells has just the right amount of angst, fear and love for her family and neighborhood. Her voice is soulful and clear in contrast to the hip-hop rap numbers that dominate the two and half hour story. Benny, played by the authentic Marcel Saunders, is her love interest and also works for Nina's father in his taxi dispatch business. He is a gifted actor and singer, as they both sing “Benny’s Dispatch” his comedic timing works particularly well in a scene as a rapper dispatcher. Joshua Gonzales and Shiela Viramontes as Nina's parents are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Gonzales has a riveting solo “Inuti”; his voice is foolproof and his passion as a hurt father is deep.
Miranda’s music is infectious and moving;his lyrics are dazzling in their inventiveness, with a musical poetry of their own. Hudes’ book is insightful and sophisticated. The dialogue is sprinkled with Spanish exclamations, and Dialect Coach, Jasmine Marie Reyes, kept the company rolling their r’s and their Spanish perfect. Gomez is one of the few singing rap that I could understand, yet some of it was lost during the opening number, but Gomez has the correct charm to bring Usnavi his poetic class. His character portrayal is heartfelt and very realistic.
The show stopper on the Bankhead stage is the dynamic talented, Kevin Redrico, who offers some wonderful comedic relief as Sonny, Usnavi's cousin. Redrico is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long now” with Gomez and Vida Fernandez who plays the beautiful Vanessa; the three all have commanding voices. Redrico’s professional on stage timing and bond he develops with the cast and audience is ideal for this show. Sonny has the strong force to keep the Heights as family.
Vanessa is a young woman with big dreams of moving out of the village to a studio apartment in West Village, who Usnavi loves from afar. She works for salon owner and local gossip, Daniella, hysterically played by Amanda Maxwell. Her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. The ditzy shop assistant, Carla, well played by Emily Alvarado completes the trio who work at the salon. The three sing some great featured songs including “No Me Diga” with Wells. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy of these three wonderful characters.
Anita Colotto lovingly plays the matriarch of the neighborhood, she is convincing as the older woman who is Usnavi's surrogate abuela who raised him. Colotto’s wonderful feature song “Paciencia y Fe” brings one of the themes beautifully staged by Lazo. Claudia and Usnavi’s relationship and duets are sweet, touching and believable; “Hundreds of Stories” is grand with passion and heart.
There isn't a weak actor-dancer singer in the group with standouts being Joren Chris Reyes as Graffiti Pete who opens the show with an polished spray can mosh up. (Justin Sabino rotates in the role). The cuddly charming Lucas deAyora is Piraqua Guy and he shows some sterling energy in this role and his delightful “Piragua” song. Lucas has a wonderful voice that filled the Bankhead with his sweet ice drinks.
Lazo’s choreography is sizzling, she includes swift high energy dance numbers especially highlighted in “Carnaval del Barro” where the insightful and sexy salsa dancing is infectious and features the ensemble players: Staci Arriaga, Catherine Delos Santos, Christine Curulla, Liz Marsh, Jasmine Marie Reyes, Michelle Roque, Allie Villa, Brandon Canela, and Caedon Perrimon. Highlighted by the high kicks, amazing moves and tumbles from Zachariah Mohammed, Leo Diaz, Kristofer Kelsey, Harold Ny and hip hop pro Joren Reyes.
Superb music direction by Sierra Dee and her beat filled seven piece orchestra. Dee brings the best out of her cast in the tearful number “Alabanza” stage in the candlelight designed by the award winning lighting designer Paul Vega. “Blackout” featuring the whole company includes Vega’s creative edge with his fireworks effects celebrating the eve of July 4th. Assistant director and choreographer Misty Megia was surly part of the black out confusion on stage and the mini riot and vandalism created as the first act ends. Kathleen Qiu costumes are very colorful and a mix of millennial look, and the slick dresses and heels on the hair shop women. Scott Johnson's sound design is put to a rigorous test as the company forceful dance moves are not easy for body mics. Johnson is also required to mix some pre recorded music along with the live orchestra, and the fireworks and storm mood - is always perfect.
Wells shines throughout the show during her many songs including with Marcel Saunders as the lovable Benny they both sing “When The Sun Goes Down”. Gomez and Fernandez celebrate some good news with a bottle of “Champagne” in an excellent duet between the two as they show off their strong voices. Gomez and cast are impressive in dance and energy in the song “96,000”, and Viramontes as Nina’s mom, shows her skilled acting and voice in her solo “Enough”. Wells is in top form and is very passionate in her closing solo “Everything I know”.
This production is gorgeous, an energetic version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous work. IN THE HEIGHTS and its subtext and themes are human connections, the power of neighborhoods, universal hopes and dreams that make for bold statements. Maybe Usnavi (Miranda’s alter ego) is not Homer and is not really a classical epic like the Odyssey, but in a way it is. It shows in a simple depiction, why and how a place becomes home and how a culture’s strength may lie in finding positive ways to understand the American Dream. This is a sure bet family treat, and a perfect way to celebrate your fall theatre season.
Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre Presents:
In the Heights
Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed and Choreography
by Christina Lazo
Musical Direction by Sierra Dee,
Produced by Kathleen Breedveld.
Through Nov 6th
2400 First Street, Livermore, CA
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Tickets: $29-$43; 925-373-6800, www.trivalleyrep.org
Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/trivalleyrep/
Bankhead Theater box office 925-373-6800,
Tuesday thru Saturday, or visit online:
Pictures by Max DeSantis, Robert Sholty and graphics by DC Scarpelli