BWW Reviews: OC's Chance Theater Presents Vibrant IN THE HEIGHTS
For the past few years, Orange County's award-winning Chance Theater has consistently presented some of the most innovative, home-grown versions of recent contemporary musicals (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lysistrata Jones, Jerry Springer: The Musical, to name a few), that have been cleverly re-envisioned for the much smaller footprint of its storefront set-up. This summer is no exception as the intimate theater is now offering an OC regional production of the Tony award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS, helmed by Chance Theater's own artistic director Oanh Nguyen.
Lively and electrified by its talented, winsome lead actors, the admirable production has just been extended for additional performances in its Anaheim Hills home through August 8---and deservedly so.
One of the most intriguingly exciting new works of the 21st Century, IN THE HEIGHTS has been credited for introducing the world to its genius co-creator and main voicebox Lin-Manuel Miranda, who not only wrote the show's witty music and lyrics but also originated the lead role of Usnavi, the lovable neighborhood "good-guy" that runs a popular bodega in the New York borough of Washington Heights (Luckily, Los Angeles audiences were treated to a west coast reprise of Miranda in the role when the musical made its debut at the Pantages Theatre a few years ago).
Combining Miranda's musical gifts for street poetry with Quiara Alegría Hudes' funny and melodramatic book, IN THE HEIGHTS went on to win a Best Musical Tony, a Best Show Album Grammy, and was even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
As expected, when IN THE HEIGHTS first debuted, it gave a much-needed jolt to Broadway. Of its many great aspects, the show is often praised for seamlessly mashing-up Latin grooves, familiar classic Broadway conventions, and hip-hop beats into a likable, slice-of-barrio-life musical that's moving, aspirational, and, at times, amusing---all while depicting its multi-racial and multi-generational stories with honor, forethought, and authenticity. And with several characters criss-crossing with their own storylines about their lives in the neighborhood, there's always someone in the show that audiences can connect with on a deeper level.
That refreshing spirit that enveloped the original and touring productions of IN THE HEIGHTS has mostly been retained in Chance Theater's new local production, steered along by Nguyen's brisk staging and with noteworthy assists from Bradley Kaye's set, Robyn Wallace's musical direction, and most especially Kelly Todd's dynamic, terrific choreography that pays great homage to the modern-lyrical-meets-hip-hop vibe of the original. It will have you wishing you can join the party center stage.
Though there seems to be a slight sense of deer-in-headlights timidness that hovers around the proceedings (which may have likely subsided by the time this production hits its stride during the second week of performances), the show itself manages to rise above the semi-organized chaos to crackle with an electric, infectiously appealing pulse, offering a genuinely entertaining, praiseworthy go at Miranda's multi-layered material.
Much of the show's selling points can be attributed to the production's impressive pair of leads. As Usnavi, the neighborhood's Dominican-born, go-to merchant for newspapers, lottery tickets, and delicious cups of café con leche, Joshua Lopez attacks Miranda's rat-a-tat rhymes with the ease of a seasoned rapper while still beaming like an endearing, cuddly, down-to-earth teddy bear. It's a joy to watch.
And as young Nina Rosario, the sweet neighborhood smarty-pants who's back home for the summer after spending her first year at Stanford, Julia Cassandra Smith breaks our hearts as she struggles to find her place in the world while still honoring the pressures set forth by her parents' wishes (it seems parents wishing for their children to do better than they do appears to be something universal amongst cultures). Thanks to her age-authentic looks and a gorgeous, emotionally-tinged singing voice, Smith's portrait easily earns our sympathies and affections.
Standouts in the supporting cast worth mentioning also include Nina's demanding parents played by Tony Sanchez and Rachel Oliveros Catalano; Rubén J. Carbjal as Usnavi's mischievous cousin Sonny; velvet-voiced Charles McCoy as Benny, Nina's not-so-secret paramour who happens to work at her Dad's taxi/limo service; Chelsea Baldree as Usnavi's crush Vanessa, and, finally, Candida Orosco as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's aging but spunky surrogate grandma and advice-dispenser.
But really, the production truly bursts with enjoyable energy whenever the entire ensemble comes together to sing and dance their hearts out cramped in that small stage---whether singing about their struggles, partying their blues away, celebrating the joys of life, or mourning a tragic loss. Surprisingly enough, the scale of Chance Theater's smaller space actually enhances the overall emotional stakes set forth by the musical, even though some of its flaws become more evident at the same time (some of the show's funniest lines somehow fall flat here; some songs are performed without the same ummph I enjoyed in previous productions).
Nonetheless, this production is quite an admirable, valiant achievement overall, particularly in trying to capturing the mood and motifs of the original. If you have yet to see a production of the musical, Chance Theater's offering is well worth the bet.
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Photos from Chance Theater's IN THE HEIGHTS by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
The Chance Theater's Production of IN THE HEIGHTS has been extended for additional performances through August 10, 2014. The Chance Theater's new home is located in the newly-christened Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.