BWW Reviews: You Must Take the A Train - Levine School Hits THE HEIGHTS
There are few shows I've been able to see from their early stages. In the Heights is one of them. I was happy to see the Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical in readings, workshops, off Broadway and then finally as a hit on the Great White Way. And then of course, the true test of time - the high school production.
I brought my friend Jess (a long-time fan of In The Heights) on the long trek to Bethesda to catch the Levine School of Music Act Two production of the show.
Now, as you might know, Bethesda isn't really known for it's ethnic diversity, so I was a bit surprised and apprehensive about seeing a musical about Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York here. But then I recalled a local high school in Massachusetts (where I grew up) doing a clap on 1-and-3 production of Once on this Island that was a huge hit. So we ventured forth.
In the Heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda's tale of a neighborhood filled with stories. It's not the gentrified, overpriced Washington Heights that it's become, but a neighborhood with color, flavor, rhythm and most importantly - movement. That last part is captured beautifully in City Dance's Zac Norton's electric choreography - and showcased by a talented ensemble of dancers led by impressive acrobatics from cast member Liam Allen.
Noah Kieserman leads the way as our storyteller Usnavi. Kieserman possesses the awkward charm and charisma necessary to weave the narrative beautifully. Usnavi's love interest Vanessa (a silver-throated Bryce Gudelsky) is considering a move downtown that's frequently thwarted by credit problems and financial challenges.
Meanwhile, across the street, the Rosarios struggle to keep their taxi business afloat, but are welcoming home their daughter Nina (Carley Rosefelt) not knowing she's just dropped out of her first year at Stanford. Rosefelt's performance is understated and engaging, holding the stage with a grip when she wants and generously sharing it when she's supposed to.
Working at the taxi dispatch for Nina's father is Benny (Marc Pavan), who has fallen for Nina. This was one of the few times I was a bit challenged by ethnicity, but Pavan handled the role well - his and Rosefelt's greatest moments were when they shared the stage. Their duets and intricate harmonies truly soared.
One of the more difficult challenges young actors have is when they need to play a role far older than they are, but Tyler Lazzari (Kevin), Amanda Silverstein (Abuela Claudia), and Carla Astudillo (Camila) all handled their older roles with aplomb. In fact, vocally they were among the strongest in the cast. I later found Astudillo even assisted some of the other cast members find their roles by sharing her own immigration story.
Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Max Fowler) served up some great laughs. And as the Piraguero, Jhonny Maldonado not only brought charm to an otherwise thankless role, but moved like Fred Astaire leading the ensemble in several of the group numbers.
Director Kevin Kuchar has done incredible work with encouraging these students towards embracing challenging roles while respecting their limitations. It's clear that as removed as these performers were from the people in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Washington Heights, they were able to create a respectful and vibrant neighborhood.
The only complaint I had - and it comes in the form of a "get off my lawn" type statement - is that it makes me sad that performers are now trained to depend on sound amplification. Microphones, especially in a smaller theatre almost always come with feedback that pulls you out of the moment, hugs where the microphone is swept by someone's shirt - or of course, the awkward offstage comment where someone doesn't realize their mic is still on. This production had no shortage of those moments.
The thing that made me happiest about catching this show was learning that this is a musical that will stand the test of time. No matter who is performing it or where they are performing it, the story, the music and the rhythms shine through.
Photos by Jamie McGonnigal, full gallery available at http://equalityphotos.zenfolio.com/a2heights
Jhonny Maldonado and ensemble