THE 'WASHINGTON HEIGHTS’ BODEGA COMES TO THE SUTTER STREET STAGE WITH A STUNNING CAST AND PRODUCTION
Washington Heights heats up San Francisco's Union Square as CMTC continues to celebrate their 20th season of powerhouse theatre. The hundred seat Shelton stage transforms into the full scale Bodega, with rows of chips, canned food and tasty treats. IN THE HEIGHTS gets an intimate treatment with a smaller featured cast only through December 15th on the Sutter Street stage.
This Tony winner is Lin Manuel-Miranda's first major musical that won his team five Tonys. Resident craft staff of CMTC Director Nicole Meñez says, “I'm honestly surprised that no one in San Francisco has done Heights yet considering its popularity - On top of that, it's such an interpersonal way to manifest conversations about hardships of immigration policies, DREAMers, and DACA. Lots of stories of the characters in HEIGHTS resonate in people whether they come from immigrant backgrounds, or by tapping into the way intergenerational relationships and purpose play in familial relationships. A show about family and home is perfect for the holidays, and I hope Heights can be a new tradition.”
This well executed intimate production is directed and choreographed by Menez who was able to bring a fresh new cast of just the 12 leads to this black box venue. This version takes you directly inside a Bodega Store in Washington Heights, designed by Mara Ishihara Zinky. The warm homey set brings the performance directly to your seat. The production has a 7-11 feel created by prop master Stephanie Dittbern who filled the shops with chips, canned food, drinks, sweets and the care of owner Usnavi De La Vego’s love he has for his hood.
The Tony winning Best Musical won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a Grammy for Best Cast Album for writer creator Lin Manuel Miranda with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. This is the 8th time I have seen ITH locally, the wonderful street party, the strong story offers is always marvelous to see a sixth or seventh time. This past theatre season I was completely blown away by the San Jose State University production, and the Washington Heights up in the Oakland hills this past summer was a highlight. But one more visit at CMT is a great way to close out the 2018 theatre season. 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.
Director Menez intimately stages this family musical with love and care and “Carnaval del Barrio” makes you want to samba with the cast. Her choreography will have you jumping out of your seat in celebration. Music director, Louis Lagalante, uses a mix of live and prerecorded music. The cast has some strong voices to work with and some that struggle with the score. But the live percussion keeps this Washington Heights charming, danceable and still powerful along with the polished 12 member company.
USNAVI is played by the terrific Julio Chavez who was featured in the Woodminster ITH to finally play one of his “dream” roles. Chavez is a true immigrant from Venezuela and is proud and honored to stand in Lin Manuel’s shadow. Chavez opens the story with the banner number “In The Heights” proving his skilled rap talents and introducing the first rate 12 member cast. The bodega he runs is just as colorful as his performance. He later sings “96,000” with the company and proves his compelling voice.
The first scene immediately sets the tone for what is to come – the high energy dance numbers and rap is strong, plus the singing and salsa music seems to lift you from your seat. Chavez brings his best rap skills and splendid voice to “It Won’t Be Long Now” alongside Nona Fernandez Doane as Vanessa, and Edwin Jacobs as Sonny.
NINA ROSARIO is superbly played by the fabulous Carla Gallardo, fresh from the award honored Ubuntu Theatre Project. She sings the sweet song “Breathe”, her voice is graceful as she shares 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. Gallardo is an established Bay Area actor who shines in all her songs including her solo “Everything I know”.
In the role of CLAUDIA, the powerful Michelle Navarrete steals this show as she lovingly plays the matriarch of the neighborhood; she is convincing as the older woman who is Usnavi's surrogate abuela who raised him. Navarrete’s wonderful feature song “Paciencia y Fe” brings one of the themes handsomely staged by Menez as she emphasizes the family relationship between Claudia and Usnavi. The theme is touching and believable, while later, in the second act Navarrete sings “Hundreds of Stories” is grand with spirit and heart along side Chavez.
BENNY is played by the smooth, hip Dedrick Weathersby who sings “Benny’s Dispatch” with Gallardo and their onstage timing is ideal. Weathersby is enthusiastic in his dance skills and proves his polished singing voice in “When You’re Home” alongside Gallardo. Weathersby a TBA and Broadwayworld nominated actor says "I'm thankful to tell a story which involves people of color. With the social fabric present in today's time, it clearly shows, theater heals". He is thrilled to be with this talented cast after his role in the FANTASTICS. Both Weathersby and Gallardo are featured in the second act opening number in their love song “Sunrise” and show off their passionate voices.
NINA’S PARENTS are played by foolproof late add to the cast Sergio Lobito as Kevin, and Bidalia E Alanese as Camila who are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Lobito has a solo “Inutli”; his voice is splendid as is his passion as a hurt father. Alanese as Camila has a solid strong voice in the family song “Enough” and commands the stage in “Siempre” with the company. Both Lobito and Alanese bring a celebration of pride, diversity and family to this story.
SONNY is played by the talented Edwin Jacobs who offers some wonderful comedic relief as Usnavi's cousin. Jacobs is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “96,000” with the hip excellent Chavez and the gifted Doane. This is Jacobs first show at CMTC; he has a long history as a Bay Area actor. He is fresh from appearing in PianoFight's Basement Party Sketch Troop. Jacobs steals the show when he is on stage and his perfect comic timing with Chavez is keen and kept the sold out opening night audience smiling.
VANESSA is played by the wonderful Nora Doane. She soars in her duet with Chavez, the delightful “Champagne”. The two show some Heights magic on stage. Doane is also an expert dancer who proves her talent in “96,000” and “Club” with the company and shows class with the crowd pleasing hip hop dance. Highlighted by the accomplished Jepoy Ramos urban street hip hop, spray artist Graffiti Pete who is all over the CMTC stage mixing with his friends in the hood.
Salon owner and local gossip diva, DANIELLA is played by the dynamite Mia Romero Her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. She is matched with the wonderful Elena Ester who plays the ditzy shop assistant, Carla. Romero completes the trio who works at the salon. The three including Gallardo sing the hit song “No Me Diga”. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy to create these three wonderful characters.
The spirit of Washington Heights is GRAFFITI PETE, played by the colorful Ramos who opens the show with his spray cans and hip urban moved that creates the heart of this production. Ramos is fresh from the TBA nominated TOMFOOLERY cast that was downstairs at the Shelton basement stages. PIRAGUA GUY is played by the powerhouse Ernie Tovar who sings with gusto and affection the delightful song “Piragua”. Tovar has a wonderful voice that filled the entire CMTC stage with his sweet ice drinks. Tovar is a feature singer from the famed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Tovar is always in the wings ready to push his cart of ice drinks across the Bodega singing with his passionate voice.
The eye catching life size grocery store set created by Zinky is maintained by stage managers Mandy Kleinert and Jakob Bernardino who also kept the shelves full. I felt the set is realistic but was missing the color of Graffiti, and maybe some more flowers on Claudia’s door step. The ice cart featured in “Piragua” is fully working and designed by Prop Master Dittbern. Costume Designer Marisely Cortes kept the cast very colorful with a mix of millennial look, and the slick bright dresses and heels on some of the women. Cortes’ kept Claudia in a warm look always in her morning apron and Sonny’s and Usnavi’s colorful shirts that matched the mood of the show.
Menez keeps some cast on stage throughout the two and half hour show with actors doubling for street friends and extra dancers. The “Blackout” ends the first act and is highlighted by fireworks designed by Chris Lundahi’s clever light design. Musical director Lagalante brings the best out of the cast in the tearful number “Alabanza” staged in candlelight. Ella Cooley’s sound design includes the crackling fireworks and her mics are put to a rigorous test with the company’s dance moves as the mix with the prerecorded music and live instruments was excellent. Other tech staff include vet in-house production coordinator and carpenter Anthony Aranda, and additional music arrangements by Brian Allen Hobbs.
This production is a colorful intimate 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. It proves a place that becomes home and how a culture’s strength are positive ways to understand and live the American Dream. This production is about sold out but it has been extended and seats are easy to score. Custom Made Theatre Co truly puts the community in theatre and Miranda would be pleased. Next up at CMTC are two REGIONAL PREMIERES When We Were Young and Unafraid by Sarah Treem that opens Jan 17, and American Hero by Bess Wohl that opens March 7th. But in the meantime, start your Holiday theatre season with “Paciencia y Fe” as this IN THE HEIGHTS is always must see.
THE CUSTOM MADE THEATRE CO PRESENTS
In the Heights
Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Artistic Director Brian Katz
Directed and Choreographed
by Nikki Meñez.
Musical direction by Louis Lagalante
MUST CLOSE SUNDAY DEC 9th
Custom Made Theatre,
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco 94102
Two and half hours one intermission
Tickets (415) 798-2682,
photos by Jay Yamada
Custom Made Theatre Co. 2018/19 season continues with
When We Were Young and Unafraid. By Sarah Treem, Directed by Tracy Ward. Starring Stacy Ross. JAN 17th
USNAVI: Julio Chavez VANESSA: Nora Fernandez Doane NINA: Carla Gallardo BENNY: Dedrick Weathersby CAMILA: Bidalia Albanese KEVIN: Sergio Lobito*
CARLA: Elena Ester, SONNY: Edwin Jacobs, ABUELA: Michelle Navarrete GRAFITTI PETE: Jepoy Ramos, DANIELA: Mia Romero, PIRAGUA GUY: Ernie Tovar
About Custom Made Theatre Co.
The Custom Made Theatre Co., in its 20th season of production in San Francisco, is committed to producing plays that awaken our social conscience, focusing on the strength of the ensemble and creating an intimate theatrical experience.
Custom Made is a member of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), National New Play Network (Associate member, NNPN) and Theatre Bay Area (TBA). Recipient of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Paine Knickerbocker Award for making a lasting contribution to Bay Area theatre. Media Contact: Perry Aliado, Press Coordinator, (415) 798-2682,