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Washington Heights comes to San Jose for the spring as San Jose State University Theatre department stages an exciting and stylish IN THE HEIGHTS at the Hammer Center for the Arts; extended through May 6th. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music and lyrics based on the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The highly touted, two-act musical was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It also earned a Grammy nod for Best Musical Show Album in 2008, followed by the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

I have covered this musical three times already this season, so guessing that my readers know this wonderful story. This review will just cover the production team of this SJSU Department of Film and Theatre and the School of Music and Dance collaboration. For the first time in twenty years, and thanks to generous donations to access to the original Broadway set, and the hard work of many, SJSU is putting on a show true to Miranda’s first Broadway hit. The SJSU Expressions Blog says “Along with bringing world-class theater to San José, In the Heights is giving students hands-on experience in the staging and production of a major Broadway play.”

Director Buddy Butler says he is endeared to Miranda’s story “Here are these people who exist everyday on the street. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they have problems, they have celebrations—it’s a human story, - Miranda’s show is the perfect fit for not only SJSU students, but for San José and the larger Bay Area community.” “It’s a show that continues our commitment to diversity,” adds Butler. “I wanted to find a play that would speak to that diversity and also give voice to the unrepresented voices out there.” Fred Cohen, conductor and chair of the School of Music & Dance says “Film & Theatre has done some things at the Hammer, and Music and Dance has done some very exciting things,- But we’ve never worked together on a music theatre piece as popular as this. It’s very exciting.”

SJSU creative team created a full throttle production where this mostly student cast is outstanding. Exceptionally staged by director Butler who recruited the standout guest artist and native of the Dominican Republic, Oklys Pimentel. He has performed the lead Usnavi in the past and brings a flawless skill to the rap and a smooth hero of the story. Pimentel opens the musical with the entire company in the impressive banner song “In The Heights,” His accomplished voice carries the theme of his rap and choreographer Bridgette Loriaux’s hip hop is infectious throughout the two in half hour show. It is certain that Loriaux and her assistant Heather McCaul created more dance for this San Jose production than seen in the Broadway version. The vibrant Frankie Mendoza, who plays Graffiti Pete, also choreographed all the Hip-Hop dance that keeps the 30 cast members busy in the many numbers including “96,000” that stops the show.

There is no weak number in this production, the cast's vocals are pitch perfect. The orchestra under the direction of music director Fred Cohen includes a superb 15 member pit with an exciting percussion section headed by Tom Benton, Joshua Kwan, and Jef Marcos. The drum section alone in this musical is explosive and fills the Hammer theatre with wonderful salsa sounds. Jesse Sanchez is the vocal music director who was the musical assistant for the national tour of Hamilton and worked with the original creative team with the Broadway Tony winner In the Heights.

Nina Rosario, superbly played by the thrilling Ally Abonador, sings the sweet song “Breathe” where her voice shines as she tells the story of her first year at the University.

Abonador has just the right amount of angst, fear and love for her family and neighborhood. Benny, played by the polished Jonah Price, is a gifted actor and singer and both are a highlight of this cast as they sing “Benny’s Dispatch” their comedic timing works particularly well in a scene as a rapper dispatcher. Jesse Guzman and Monica Leones as Nina's parents are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Guzman has a riveting solo “Inuti”; his voice is foolproof and his passion as a hurt father is deep. Leones has a solid strong voice in the family song “Enough”, and commands the stage in “Siempre” with the company.

Miranda’s music is infectious and moving; his lyrics are dazzling in their inventiveness, with a musical poetry of their own. The showstopper on the Hammer stage is the passionate and talented, Jordan Celestino, who offers some wonderful comedic relief as Sonny, Usnavi's cousin. Celestino is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Pimentel. Celestino is a true professional on stage and the bond he develops with the cast and audience is ideal for this show. Sonny has the strong force to keep the Heights as family. I hope to see Celestino in many more musical productions. Pimental is a rap singer that I could understand, his singing is likable, and he has the correct charm to bring Usnavi his poetic class. His character portrayal is heartfelt and very endearing. The sizzling Cristina Hernandez, who plays the beautiful Vanessa; she has a commanding voice. Hernandez is also excellent in “Champagne” with the love struck Usnavi and the two show some Heights’ magic on stage.

Salon owner and local gossip, Daniella, is hysterically played by guest performer Rochelle Cartangna Segura. Her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. The ditzy shop assistant, Carla, well played by the youngest member of the cast Shachar-Lee Yaakobovitz, completes the trio who work at the salon. The three sing the entertaining featured song “No Me Diga” with Abonador. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy of these three wonderful characters.

Marsha Dimalanta also a guest performer, lovingly plays Claudia, the matriarch of the neighborhood. She is convincing as the older woman who is Usnavi's surrogate abuela who raised him.

Dimalamtas’ wonderful feature song “Paciencia y Fe” brings one of the themes beautifully staged by Butler. Claudia and Usnavi’s relationship and duets are sweet, touching and believable; “Hundreds of Stories” is grand with passion and heart.

Standouts in the cast include Mendoza as Graffiti Pete who opens the show with a polished spray can mosh up. SJSU local favorite Will Corkery is Piragua Guy who sings with gusto and joviality in this role and he is delightful in the iconic number “Piragua” song. Corkey has a wonderful voice that filled the Hammer theatre with his sweet ice drinks. Also a highlight in this high energy production is the detailed original Broadway set designed by the Tony winner Anna Louizos. The HEIGHTS includes Usnavi’s storefront, the hair parlor, and the Cab company front. The realism of the set is highlighted by Michael Locher’s authentic props especially filling the shelves of the bodega, the colorful flags and Graffiti Pete’s spray cans. The ice cart featured in Piragua is fully working and a favorite prop.

Loriaux’s choreography is sizzling, she includes swift high energy dance numbers especially highlighted in “Carnaval del Barro” and “When You’re Home” where the insightful and sexy salsa dancing is infectious and features the ensemble players: the full throttle Erika Andrade, Agustin Chapa, Choice Plasencia, Erika Celisa Quinonez, Agustin Chapa, Angela Sarabia, Sheena Hensen, Ada Chibukchyan, Lucy Chibukchyan, Kelsey Mae Grimes, Shaelan Barber, Daniel Lerma, John M. Sanchez, Kendra Kannegaard and, Heather McCaul. Highlighted by the high kicks, amazing moves from Peter Tran, and Tony Wooldridge and hip hop tumbling pro Frankie Mendoza. Vocal director Sanchez brings the best out of his cast in the tearful number “Alabanza” staged in the candlelight designed by the SJSU resident lighting designer Steven Manshardt. “Blackout” featuring the whole company includes Manshardt’s creative edge with fireworks lighting celebrating the eve of July 4th. Lourizos’ and McCauls’s choreography is impressive in the blackout confusion on stage and the mini riot and vandalism created as the first act ends.

Cassandra Carpenter’ costumes are very colorful and a mix of millennial look, and the slick dresses and heels on the hair shop women. Carpenter kept Claudia in a warm day look and Benny and the cab drivers are slick white shirts and ties and Sonny’s colorful tee shirts matched the mood of the show. Antony Sutton’s sound design is put to a rigorous test as the company forceful dance moves are not easy for body mics. Sutton is also required to mix some pre recorded music along with the live orchestra, and the fireworks and storm mood - is always perfect.

Abonador shines throughout the show during her many songs including with Price as the lovable Benny, they both sing “When The Sun Goes Down”. Pimentel and cast are impressive in dance and energy in the song “The Club” production number. The second act starts off with a soft romantic ballad between Benny, Nina and a clever ballet with two ensemble members that adds even another performance that was not seen in the original production. Abonador is also very passionate in her closing solo “Everything I Know”. Assistant Director Kaitlyn Atchley and Stage manager Jennifer Wong keeps the busy cast moving on and off stage with ease. Butler’s staging opens the company to the entire space at the Hammer theatre as the cast moves through the audience and brought the sold out weekend audience to the HEIGHTS.

This production is magnetic, an energetic version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous work. IN THE HEIGHTS and its 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. The sold out crowd were on their feet for a well deserved standing ovation as the musical ended. This is a sure bet family treat, and a perfect way to celebrate your spring theater season. The show is sold out but some seats still remain at show time.

I am pleased to see SJSU back in full swing with the theatre and film department making The Hammer Center for the Arts their new home. Show producer Barnaby Dallas, says “The Hammer is creating huge opportunities for our students, for our faculty, and for our community.” Dallas has opened all the matinee performances free for San Jose area high schools. I see two more productions of ITH in Castro Valley this spring, and at Woodminster Summer Musicals in Oakland. Next up at the Hammer is LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S MASS presented by SJSU School of Music and Dance that opens May 10th at the Hammer Arts Center.

San Jose State University Theatre Presents

In the Heights

Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes

Directed by Buddy Butler

Musical Direction by Fred Cohen

Choreographer Bridgette Loriaux

Hip Hop Director

Frankie Mendoza

Through May 6th

The Hammer Arts Center, San Jose Calif

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission

Tickets $20 for adults and $10 for students at the door

Photos by Little Big Entertainment

Interview bites courtesy of SJSU Expressions Blog By Aaminah Baloch

Cast Talk Back

With; Oklys Pimentel, Will Corkery, Frankie Mendoza, Shachar-Lee Yaakobovitz, Cristina Hernandez, Rochelle Cartagena SeguraJonah Price, Monica Blanco Leones, Jordan Celestino, Ally AbonadorMarsha DimalantaErica Andade, Agustin Chapa, Choice Plasencia,Erika Celisa, Agustin Chapa, Angela Sarabia, Sheena Hensen, Ada Chibukchyan, Lucy Chibukhyan, Kelsey Mae Grimes, Shaelan Barber, Daniel Lerma, Peter Tran, Tony Wooldridge and Heather McCaul

Jordan Celestino talks about his role in the production:

Students like Celestino are involved in all areas of the production, from singing and dancing on stage to creating costumes; “I feel like we sound really good in such a short amount of time, which is amazing,” says Jordan Celestino. “I think that’s just because of how Jesse works—and what he brings to the table makes us want to bring more.”Not only are students learning new skills, the collaboration has given them the opportunity to work with industry experts. William Corkery, a senior Theatre Arts major, enjoys the challenge of working at a professional level: “The more perfection that you demand out of people, the better you get.”

SJSU Expressions Blog By Aaminah Baloch

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