Sunday, March 10, 2013

Actors' Playhouse: In The Heights (3-1/2 reviews)

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater opened its production of In The Heights on March8, 2013.
Winner of four 2008 Tony Awards including Best Musical, In The Heights is a sensational show about chasing your dreams and finding your true home. Billed as the next chapter in the classic American story on stage, In the Heights tells the universal story of a vibrant community in Manhattan's Washington Heights – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open, and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music.
David Arisco directed a cast that included Nick Duckart, Sarah Amengual, Oscar Cheda, Marcus Paul James, Elise Santora, Denise Sanchez, Alicia Taylor Tomasko, Rayner G. Garrachan, Doreen Montalvo, Jose-Luis Lopez, and Henry Gainza.  Choreography by Stephanie Klemons, with musical direction by Manny Schvartzmann.

 Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
The Tony Award-winning In the Heights is the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up near the place where his career-launching musical is set, and Philadelphia-raised Quiara Alegría Hudes, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Still, watching the show with a crowd as diverse and attuned to its rhythms as the excellent cast is, it’s easy to feel that this vibrant piece of New York theater was always meant for Miami.
Overseeing this just-right pinnacle of Actors’ silver anniversary season are director David Arisco, who has shaped the company’s shows since its earliest days; choreographer Stephanie Klemons, whose complex movement patterns, split-second shifts and stylistic range work together organically; and musical director Manny Schvartzman, whose band of eight navigates the score’s propulsive Latin rhythms, stirring anthems and beautifully crafted ballads with equal finesse.
Each of the actors vividly inhabits his or her character. Duckart is a likeable, engaging Usnavi, shy as he’s crushing on Prades’ willowy Vanessa, stronger as he’s trading barbs with Garranchan’s irresistibly funny Sonny. Amengual, who leads the company on the lovely Breathe, has a tender language-lesson duet with James on Sunrise. Cheda’s cry of uselessness on Inútil is powerful, and Gainza’s richly delivered Piragua makes you want to rush the stage to buy a syrup-topped snow cone. Santora’s appealing Daniela pairs a quick wit with a penchant for truth-telling. Montalvo’s Abuela Claudia is the caretaker of memories, the loving elder we revere, then mourn. Lopez and his fellow dancers? Killer.

Tickets to In the Heights are as hot as the musical’s sultry summer setting. The show is Actors’ anniversary gift to South Florida, and it’s one worth claiming for yourself.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
It’s been a long, long time since a locally-produced musical has thrust inside an audience’s collective chest to touch its heart like Actors’ Playhouse’s triumphant production of In The Heights.
Joy pours off the stage with such exuberance that it’s enough to make a crisping-out theatergoer tear up with gratitude. Every last person in the cast and creative team led by director David Arisco and choreographer/musical stager Stephanie Klemons combine power, passion and skill to produce an affecting story of dreamers, community and a search for home.
Start with home-grown Duckart who has been shuttling between New York and Miami for several years now. The actor and his character’s open -hearted persona is the glue that holds this ensemble show together... here he has found the defining role of his career to date. His eyes pour out that joy, that pride, that compassion for his neighbors, the pain at losses and above all, a yearning for something just out of reach.
The entire supporting cast could not be bettered. Sarah Amengual brings a gloriously clear, strong voice and sensitive acting chops to Nina, especially in her plaintive solos “Everything I Know” and “Breathe.”
Oscar Cheda, who won a Carbonell for The Adding Machine, delivers what may be his finest performance as Nina’s father, the son of Cuban farmers who is willing to sacrifice everything he has achieved for his daughter’s future.
Marcus Paul James invests a hard-won dignity in Benny, Elise Santora rips up the stage when Daniela leads the community in a rallying “Carnaval del Barrio,” Denise Sanchez brings iron and fire to Nina’s mother, Alicia Taylor Tomasko makes a lovable but slightly dim Carla, and Rayner G. Garrachan is the seemingly lazy but actually ambitious Sonny.
Special note must be reserved for three people. Gainza takes the role of the street vendor, which seemed like just a background character in the national tour, and makes him a gloriously three-dimensional character blessed with a lovely singing voice. Doreen Mantalvo makes the abuela the fulcrum of the community without pulling focus from anyone, but her clarion voice stops the show when she recalls her childhood in the Cuba of the 1940s in the powerful “Paciencia y Fé (Patience and Faith).” Finally, in a cast of solid dancers, Jose-Luis Lopez as Grafitti Pete stands out for earnestness, precision and crispness.
In addition to Klemons and Gainza’s past with the piece, this production obviously benefits from the fact that several other people have worked either in the original cast, replaced members on Broadway or been on the national tours...  But you can also feel that entire cast – whose ethnic origins reflect an United Nations of Hispanic countries – is energized simply by doing a play that puts their culture on a mainstream stage for their families and friends to see.

Along with Other Desert Cities, this edition of In The Heights makes Actors’ Playhouse’s 25th anniversary season a benchmark year for quality as well as longevity. Not since the same theater’s legendary Floyd Collins in 2003 have I wanted to turn around and go right back the next night.
Roger Martin reviewed for miamiartzine:
A cast of twenty, count ‘em twenty, singers and dancers belt, twirl and stomp in this love song to the Latino immigrants in NYC’s Washington Heights. In The Heights, now playing at Coral Gables Actors’ Playhouse, won four Tony awards and a Grammy in 2008 and it’s easy to see why.  It’s a whole lot of fun.
All the principals sing well, but when the music gets loud and it does so frequently (hey, it's the barrio) the lyrics are lost and Nina and Vanessa set off local car alarms with their belting.
The musical staging and choreography by Stephanie Klemons, based on the original by Andy Blankenbuehler, is terrific, with two absolutely stand out dancers, Jose-Luis Lopez who plays Grafitti Pete and ensemble member Erika Navarro.
Actors' Playhouse artistic director David Arisco is at his best when he directs big musicals. With In The Heights he's at his very best.
Once Hap Erstein got off his petty and ill-informed soap box, he eventually blurted out a review for Palm Beach ArtsPaper:
... for those who have never seen this involving, character-driven celebration of the far uptown Hispanic community and its hopes and dreams, this is one of the most exciting shows from Actors’ Playhouse in its 25 years of existence. The material itself is strong, introducing as it does the enormous talent of composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also originated the central role of bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega). And then it is performed by as agile, athletic and attractive a cast as I can recall at a resident theater in South Florida.
We wish he'd spend more time reviewing the show he's at and less time ruminating on the version he wishes he was seeing.  The rest of the review is peppered with praise for Nick Duckart ("assured" and "ingratiating"), Doreen Montalvo ("touching and big-voiced), and Sarah Amengual ("sorrowful" and "charismatic").

Hap's complaint?  The show looked too much like In The Heights.

 Actors' Playhouse presents In The Heights through April 7, 2013.

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