Once upon a time, in Nueva York, en un barrio Washington Heights. Say it so it doesn’t disappear
THE WASHINGTON HEIGHTS’ BARRIO COMES TO THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE STAGE WITH A STUNNING CAST AND PRODUCTION OF ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’
Review by Vince Mediaa
Washington Heights heats up the Julia Morgan Theatre as the Berkeley Playhouse continues to celebrate their 15th season of stunning theatre. The historic Julia Morgan stage transforms into the full scale Barrio, it blocks the iconic Brooklyn Bridge but you can still see it in the distant background. IN THE HEIGHTS opened last weekend in the midst of a 100 degree heat similar to the storyline of this Tony honored musical. Music and lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. The Bodega and a cast of 22 is now on stage through October 16th. CELEBRATE Hispanic Heritage Month with this high octane company.
This is Lin Manuel-Miranda's first major musical that won his team five Tonys. AD Kimberly Dooley was set to direct this show before the theatre world went dark. When the production reassembled for this fall opening she assigned her assistant Director Mel Martinez to stage the show. Martinez directed an energetic IN THE HEIGHTS and emphasized a call to action for immigration; “We decided to shift our story to 2016 (rather than 2007) the month right before the election, when Americans had shown a level of racism we had not seen in a long time. This story is a call to action for families that are still in danger and still being sent away” said Martinez.
DREAMers, and DACA are some of the stories and characters IN THE HEIGHTS resonate in people whether they come from immigrant backgrounds, or intergenerational relationships that play in familial relationships and community.
This is the 10th time I have seen ITH locally. The wonderful street party, the strong story, is always marvelous to see a few times. My readers have read more reviews of ITH than they probably need to. I will only write about the actors and creative team. I won’t mention much about this story. But I can confirm this is the 1st ITH I have seen since the shut down.
Director Martinez stages this family musical with love and care and “Carnaval del Barrio” makes you want to samba with the cast. Choreography by Staci Arriaga is predictable at times but the company brings their own energy to the classic dance numbers. Music director, Nicolas Perez, has some amazing voices on stage that mix well with conductor Kenji Higashihama seven member pit. The live percussion keeps this Washington Heights charming, danceable and still powerful along with the polished POC company.
USNAVI is played by the awesome Carlos Diego Mendoza who was set to open this show before the shutdown. He and three of his other cast members had since moved to Los Angeles and all returned to be in this stunning cast. Mendoza is proud and honored to stand in Lin Manuel’s shadow. He opens the story with the banner number “In The Heights” proving his skilled rap talents and introducing the first rate company. The bodega he runs is just as colorful as his performance. He later sings “96,000” with the cast and proves his compelling voice. Mendoza brings his best rap skills and splendid voice to “It Won’t Be Long Now” alongside the flawless Melissa Rivera as Vanessa, and the enthusiastic Jacob Henrie-Naffa as Sonny.
NINA ROSARIO is superbly played by the fabulous Christina Hernandez, who makes her return to Berkeley Playhouse after being featured in West Side Story. 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. Hernandez is an established Bay Area actor who shines in all her songs including her solo “Everything I know”.
In the role of the heart of Washington Heights ABUELA CLAUDIA, played by the powerful Anita Viramontes. She steals this show, she lovingly plays the matriarch of the neighborhood. She is convincing as the older woman who is Usnavi's surrogate abuela who raised him. I have seen Viramontes perform this role on many Bay Area stages. Her performance of “Paciencia y Fe” is always moving. It brings one of the themes emphasizing the family relationship between Claudia and Usnavi. The theme is touching and believable, while later, in the second act Viramontes sings “Hundreds of Stories” with spirit and heart alongside Mendoza.
BENNY is played by the polished, hip Jordan Covington who sings “Benny’s Dispatch” with Hernandez and their onstage timing is ideal. Covington is enthusiastic in his dance skills and proves his infectious singing voice in “When You’re Home” alongside Hernandez. Both Hernandez and Covington are featured in the second act opening number love song “Sunrise” and show off their passionate voices.
NINA’S PARENTS are played by foolproof Erick Casanova as Kevin, and the impressive Sheila Viramontes as Camila who are pros and handle their dramatic parts with ease. Casanova has a solo “Inutli”; his voice is splendid as a hurt father. Viramontes as Camila has a solid voice in the emotional song “Enough” and commands the stage in “Siempre” with the company. Both Casanova and Viramontes bring a celebration of pride, diversity and family to this story.
SONNY is played by the explosive Jacob Henrie-Naffaa who has wonderful comedic timing as Usnavi's cousin. Naffaa is featured in the song “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “96,000” with the hip excellent Mendoza and the gifted Rivera as Vanessa. Naffaa has a long history as a Bay Area actor. Naffaa steals the show when he is on stage and his perfect swagger with Mendoza is ideal and kept the opening weekend audiences smiling.
VANESSA is played by the wonderful Melissa Rivera. She soars in her duet with Mendoza, the delightful “Champagne”. The two show some Heights magic on stage. Rivera 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 Tony Woolridge urban street hip hop, spray artist GRAFFITI PETE who opens the barrio at the top of the show making his mark.
Salon owner and local gossip diva, DANIELLA is played by the dynamite Stephanie Bauman. Her delivery, timing, body language and strong Latina smarts are perfect. She is matched with the wonderful Vanessa Dalpiaz who plays the ditzy shop assistant, Carla. Rivera completes the trio who works at the salon. The three including Hernandez sing the hit song “No Me Diga”. Miranda features strong women roles with the swagger and energy to create these three wonderful characters and stories.
PIRAGUA GUY is played by local favorite Jesse Cortez who has a dazzling tenor voice that rings across the Julia Morgan as he performs “Piragua”. Cortez wonderful voice charms the audience with his wagon of sweet ice drinks. Cortez is a feature singer in the famed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Cortez is always in the wings ready to push his cart of ice drinks across the Bodega singing with his passionate voice.
The energized ensemble fills out the other roles and features the terrific Nico Joachico, Alexandra Rosen, Miles Meckling, Alyssa Fredzess, Malcolm Leon, Megan McGrath, Kevin Gruwell, Ann Warque, Lesly Gabriela Ramirez, and Megan Mateosky. Their dancing is full throttle and voices fill Washington Heights and the aisles of the Julia Morgan.
The eye-catching life size barrio set created by Sofia T Alvarez includes a bodega full of groceries and drinks. The porch to Abuela’s home is center stage lined with flowers. The set is spattered with graffiti and features an upper level for Nina and Benny to escape too. But unless you know how to look for the Brooklyn Bridge, the iconic staple of the set is missing.
Lighting designers - Claudio Andres Silva Restrepo based on a previous light plot designed by John DiGiorgio, Desired Effect created a thrilling fireworks effect with the help of Steven Kroeger’s sound design. The ice cart featured in “Piragua” is fully working and designed by prop master Matt Owens. Costume Designer Ashley Renee kept the cast very colorful with a mix of millennial look, and the slick bright dresses and heels on some of the women. Sonny and Usnavi’s colorful shirts matched the mood of the show.
The “Blackout” ends the first act and is highlighted by fireworks, and during the long week of tech week the Bay Area experienced a heat wave that brought a real edge to the Blackout number. Vocal musical director Perez brings the best out of the cast in the tearful number “Alabanza”.
In house stage manager and associate producer Shannon Reilly moved the busy cast in and out of the Barrio with ease and kept the black out scene safe for the drama on stage. Fight director Mary Cait Hogan and lift consultant Alex Gomez choreographed authentic on stage action.
This production is an exceptional version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s marvelous work. IN THE HEIGHTS themes are human connections, the power of neighborhoods, community hopes and dreams that highlight this story. It proves a place that becomes home and culture are positive ways to live the American Dream. BPH truly puts the community in theatre and Miranda would be pleased. Start your fall theatre season with “Paciencia y Fe” as this IN THE HEIGHTS is always a must see. The pay what you can performance is set for Thursday September 22, 2022.
THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS
In the Heights
Music by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Artistic Director Kimberley Dooley
Directed by Mel Martinez
Choreographer Staci Arriaga.
Musical direction by Nicolas Perez and Kenji Higashihama
MUST CLOSE OCTOBER 16, 2022
Julia Morgan Center for the Arts
2640 College Ave Berk Ca 94704
Two and half hours one intermission
In The Heights (Pay What You Can)
Thu, Sep 22, 2022 07:00 PM
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio
CELEBRATE Hispanic Heritage Month with this high octane company
Carlos Diego Mendoza* as Usnavi De la Vega; Cristina Hernandez as Nina Rosario; Erick Casanova as Kevin Rosario; Sheila Viramontes as Camila Rosario; Jordan Covington as Benny; Melissa Rivera as Vanessa; Jacob Henrie-Naffaa as Sonny; Anita Viramontes as Abuela Claudia; Stephanie Baumann as Daniela; Vanessa Dalpiaz as Carla; Tony Wooldridge as Graffiti Pete; Jesse Cortez as Piraguero
Nicholas Jaochico, Alexandra Rosen, Miles Meckling, Alyssa Fredzess, Malcolm Leon, Megan McGrath, Kevin Gruwell, Ann Warque, Lesly Gabriela Ramirez, and Megan Mateosky.
PAY WHAT YOU CAN: There is one “Pay What You Can” performance on Thursday, September 22 at 7pm. This promotion is cash only at the door—no reservations required. Seating for this performance is general admission. We suggest a donation of $20, but can accept a minimum of $5. There is a limit of 6 tickets per purchaser.