LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA'S “IN THE HEIGHTS” OPENS THE NEW PLETHOS PRODUCTIONS WITH LOVABLE HIP HOP MU
PLETHOS STANDS FOR COMM “UNITY” THEATRE AND THIS NEW COMPANY PROVES THAT WITH THIS VISIT TO WASHINGTON HEIGHTS
Washington Heights comes to Castro Valley for the summer, to open Plethos Production's debut musical IN THE HEIGHTS, now through June 10th at the Smalltown Society theatre space.
Karen Richey Founder Director
Plethos vision is to “re-imagine community theatre in hopes of creating a unique live performance experience that is a fresh and diverse for their community. They believe they can unite communities and create opportunities for new voices,” says Karin Richey Founder and Executive Director of Plethos Productions. In the fall of 2017 Plethos set up an Indiegogo campaign and raised the funds to produce IN THE HEIGHTS as their first musical. “Never before has a show resonated as deeply with me. I have never been able to relate as fully as I do with the characters in this show and its great to see culture portrayed so thoughtfully” says Richey.
Community members from Castro Valley, Hayward, Union City and other East Bay cities donated funds to cover the cost to stage Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical IN THE HEIGHTS. The month long Indiegogo campaign offered donors tickets to the musical, Plethos t-shirts, and other perks. The Castro Valley Marketplace, World Famous Turf Club and Books on B and many more contributed to the production costs.
This smaller production is also directed by Richey, who was able to bring a fresh new cast to this intimate performance directly to your seat. The small 50 seat Smalltown Society is no more than the size of a small classroom, and maxed out with a cast of 18, the production has that site specific theater feel. The Tony winning Best Musical won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a Grammy for Best Album.
This is the 5th time I have seen ITH locally - This company puts the “Unity” in Community theatre; many local volunteers came together to help open this Washington Heights. As I entered the space the director greeted me as she was running the door, and her busy staff selling Taco's inside the small space. The colorful Piragua cart was in full ice mode making snow cones for the sold out audience. This past theatre season I was completely blown away by the San Jose University production, and I am set to visit Wash Heights three more times - including the much anticipated Woodminster production in the Oakland Hills. My readers have read more reviews of ITH than they probably need to, so I will only write about the actors and creative team. I won’t mention much about this story.
The musical is adequately staged by director Richey who uses every space in the blackbox to tell this story. Site lines are always an issue in a small venue - even in the front row you still can’t see the whole show but you won’t miss the emotion. Vocal director Joyce Ting had a challenge to work with some ensemble who are not strong singers, and brought the cast to lift the small space off its foundation with a confident chorus. Both Richey and Ting keep this smaller version of Washington Heights charming and still powerful. Her staff of volunteers and creative team pulled many of the props and set pieces from the community and other stage companies.
Usnavi, is played by the accomplished Rajiv Vijayakumar who returns for his third time performing the role that Lin-Manuel Miranda created. This bodega he runs is just as colorful as his past performances. He opens the show with the banner song “In The Heights” featuring the first rate 18 member cast.
The company is diverse and full of energy. The first scene immediately sets the tone for what is to come – the high energy dance numbers are a bit clumsy but the freestyle rap is strong and the singing and pre-recorded salsa music seems to lift you from your seat. Vijayakumar brings his best rap skills and adequate voice, giving Usnavi a more charming personality.
Nina Rosario, superbly played by the vibrant Celia Reddoch, she sings the sweet song “Breathe” her voice shines as she tells the story of her first year in college. Her voice is soulful and clear in contrast to the hip-hop rap numbers that dominate the two and half hour story.
Benny, is played by Curtis Manning who sings “Benny Dispatch” with Reddoch and their onstage timing is ideal. Manning struggles as a singer/rapper and dancer but his acting talent is sincere for Nina’s love interest. The wonderful Keren Gaiser, and Mario Cuestas are Nina's parents who are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Cuestas has a solo “Inuti”; his voice is foolproof and his passion as a hurt father is deep. Gaiser has a solid strong voice in the family song “Enough” and commands the stage in “Siempre” with the company.
The talented Myles Romo offers some wonderful comedic relief as Sonny, Usnavi's cousin. Richey cast an older actor to play the role that I found distracting. Romo is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long now” with Vijayakumar and the gifted Chanel Tilghman who plays the beautiful Vanessa; all three have commanding voices. Tilghman is terrific in all her numbers including “The Club” and “Carnaval”.
Tilghman's second act showstopper “Champagne” is excellent with the love struck Vijayakumar and the two show some Heights magic on stage. Salon owner and local gossip, Daniella, hysterically played by Geneva Colcol, her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. The ditzy shop assistant, Carla, well played by Fiorella Garcia who completes the trio who work at the salon. The four including Tilghman and Reddoch sing the hit song “No Me Diga”. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy to create these three wonderful characters.
The powerful Anita Colotto steals this show as she lovingly plays Claudia, 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 Richey. Colotto brings the house down with her passion in the wonderful solo “Enough”. Claudia's and Usnavi’s relationship and duets are sweet, touching and believable; “Hundreds of Stories” is grand with spirit and heart. Colotto has played this role in the past, and her commanding performance is the heart and soul of this new theatre company.
The ensemble is strong with standouts including Johnny Davison as Graffiti Pete who opens the show with his boombox. The flawless John Ramirez-Ortiz is Piragua Guy who sings with gusto and affection the delightful “Piragua” song. Ramirez has a wonderful voice that filled the Smalltown Society space with his sweet ice drinks.
Also a highlight is the detailed set designed by the creative Camille Denzel who used every corner of the space to create the Washington Heights neighborhood. The ice cart featured in Piragua is fully working and a favorite prop that this time actually is used to sell the snow cones before the performance begins. Stage Manager Max Chang, had tight quarters to keep the cast on cue, and the sets and props smooth entrances. Scenic set painters Nathan Alan, Cheri Zulim, Pauleen Larcina delivered on authentic signs and texture for the neighborhood look.
The hip choreography of Elizabeth Ferguson keeps the show moving and bumps your chairs since the cast is just about in your lap. “96,000” and ‘Carnaval del Barrio” are sizzling dance numbers that put the 50 member audience is in the middle of their celebration. Ferguson includes swift high energy dance numbers even though they seem clumsy they are fun and feature the ensemble players: the full throttle - Natalie Ayala, Kristy Aquino, Audrey Reyes, Diana Gatmaitan, Kenny Silberberg, and the lively Thomas Nguyen. Highlighted by the high kicks, from Davidson and Tilghman.
Richey and assistant director Riley Hyde bring the best out of their cast in the tearful number “Alabanza” staged in the candlelight. The “Blackout” featuring the whole company includes that creative edge with fireworks projections celebrating the eve of July 4th designed by the lighting director Ian King. Ferguson’s choreography is impressive in the blackout confusion on stage and the mini riot and vandalism romp. Cassie Jenkins’ costumes are very colorful and a mix of millennial look, and the slick dresses and heels on the women. Jenkins’ kept Claudia in a warm look always in her morning dress and Sonny’s and Usnavi's colorful shirts matched the mood of the show. Jon Richey’s sound design is put to a rigorous test as the company dance moves are not easy for body mics. His pre-recorded music mix was clean but some of the body mics were not always necessary since the show is so intimate much of the dialogue did not need to be amplified. Pianist Andrew Jamieson worked closely with the company during their short weeks of rehearsal.
Reddoch shines throughout the show during her many songs including with Manning as they both sing “When The Sun Goes Down”. Vijayakumar and cast are impressive in “The Club” production number. The second act starts off with the soft romantic ballad between Benny, and Nina singing "Sunrise". Reddoch is also in top form in her closing solo “Everything I know”. Richey’s staging opens the company to the entire space at the Smalltown theatre as the cast moves through the audience and brought the sold out opening weekend audience to the HEIGHTS in the first site specific feel I have seen for this musical.
This production is an energetic version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous work. IN THE HEIGHTS 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 really a classical epic hero like in the Odyssey, but in a way he is. It shows how a place becomes home and how a culture’s strength may lie in finding positive ways to understand the American Dream. This production is completely sold out through its June 10th closing. There are a few other ITH’s this season to catch, but in the meantime congrats to the Plethos Company on their first well produced musical. Plethos truly puts the “UNITY” in Community Theatre, I look forward to their next production. The new play FOUR MEN IN PARIS opens later this fall at the Hayward Douglas Morrison Theatre.
Plethos Theatre Presents
In the Heights
Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Karin Richey
Vocal Direction Joyce Ting
Choreographer Elizabeth Ferguson
Must Close June 10th
SMALL TOWN SPACE
22222 Redwood Rd., Castro Valley Ca
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermissions
Wait List at Door begins 30 min before show time
More info at http://plethos.org/
Usnavi- Rajiv Vijayakumar, Vanessa – Chanel Tilghman, Nina – Celia Reddoch
Benny – Curtis Manning, Camila – Keren Gaiser, Kevin – Mario Cuestas, Abuela – Anita Colotto, Daniela- Geneva Colcol, Sonny – Myles Romo, Carla – Fiorella Garcia
Piraguero – John Ramirez, Grafitti Pete – Johnny Davison
Ensemble: Yolanda- Natalie Ayala, Kristy Aquino, Audrey Reyes,Diana Gatmaitan
Kenny Silberberg, Thomas Nguyen
Karin Richey, Founder | Executive Director Plethos Productions
Plethos: (n.) / plā-thōz/:
plurality; multitude of people; magnitude.