BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at College Of The Desert

BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at College Of The Desert

Who says lightning can't strike twice? Last summer, Palm Canyon Theatre staged In the Heights, the first Broadway smash hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). Their houses were filled, their audiences thrilled, and young viewers arrived in droves to hear music that actually spoke to them. College of the Desert had a brainstorm and asked the same artistic team to re-stage the show as COD's spring musical, supplying them with a professional orchestra, the Valley's finest performing arts center, and professional stage technicians. The resulting new production of In the Heights, appearing this weekend only at The McCallum Theatre, is hands-down the most energetic and talented production I have ever seen a college deliver! It felt like a regional workshop of a production had been moved to Broadway, and the resulting production was a thrill!

As I watched the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, I was trying to organize phrases in my mind. I knew I had to mention Matthew Sambrano playing Usnavi, the role Miranda wrote for himself. Sambrano's laid back rapping style didn't force itself on us - it made us want to reach out to him, to like him, to listen to him, to know him. And then the dancing began. Oh my, the dancing. For the next 8 or 10 minutes, it was my favorite part of the show. Then I heard the pure, beautiful soprano of Meagan Van Dyke, and soon she was joined in some glorious duets with Joey Wahhab. And then there were her character's parents, played by Adina Lawson and Javier Triviso. Great voices, fully realized characters, familiar, interesting, likeable. Usnavi's abuela (grandmother), played by Suzanne Wourms, hobbles about the stage until she unloads with song and fills every inch of the McCallum. And speaking of great voices, Valley favorite Alisha Bates is both funny as a character, and absolutely mind-blowing when she lets those golden pipes loose. And then there's Analisa Pilecki, who mops the floor with her power number, "Carnaval del Barrio," and Jake Samples whose ringing tenor is glorious as the Piragua Guy. And perhaps my greatest joy was watching a young actor named Jake Mule whom I have watched grow up in the local kids' theatre programs. Although still in high school, he should be convicted of larceny for the ease with which he steals the scenes he is in as Usnavi's nephew. His rapping is clear and strong, his dance moves terrific, and he is just cheeky enough that we cheer for him rather than recoiling.

Director Shafik Wahhab has amped up the performances and energy of his original production to a scale appropriate for the much larger McCallum, and he never lets the train slow down. It is obvious that the cast is enjoying every moment. The plot is thin and bordering on telenovela, but the show is all about the music, and there is rarely more than three or four minutes between numbers. Musical Director (and professor) Scott T. Smith has assembled 13 professional musicians for the show, and they rock. I took a peek in the pit before the show, and the percussion section stretched almost the full width of the stage. That percussion was used for driving the salsa rhythms that are so appropriate to the show's setting in Latin-populated Washington Heights, way uptown Manhattan. And not only the solo voices are wonderful; Smith's preparatory work with the ensemble spanned a couple of months, and the clarity and musicality shows the results of his efforts.

But again, the dancing! Wow. Choreographer Jacqueline Le Blanc made the stage a living being as she moved the ensemble of good looking young dancers through one high-energy marathon after another. I was exhausted just from watching, and can hardly imagine what the performers felt like.

Sets by J. W. Layne, lighting by Keith I. Smith, costumes by Jennifer Stowe, sound mix by Jack Ramoran and always-professional stage management by Nicholas Kendall Cox gave the production a look and sound that compared with any of the national tours that use the same stage.

Top marks go to the COD faculty for selecting a modern show that obviously excited their students, and my hopes are that many of the COD students will see it, possibly experiencing musical theatre for the first time.

In the Heights continues through Sunday, May 6. Tickets can be purchased at www.mccallumtheatre.com. Note, be sure you are contacting the actual theatre and not one of the scalpers who use very similar-sounding websites.

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