BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at Olney Theatre Center - Come for the Fireworks!
What a privilege it was to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS 0ff-Broadway and on Broadway. Sitting behind me at the 37 Arts Theater was the choreographer Andy Blackenbuehler. At intermission, I said to him, "This is some of the best choreography I have seen since WEST SIDE STORY." I knew at the moment this production had Broadway on the agenda and I was so pleased it did and in fact won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2007 when Miranda famously in accepting the Tony Award commented, (alluding to Stephan Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) "Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat where there never was a hat."
What began as a project of Lyn-Manuel Miranda as a sophomore at Wesleyan University in 1999 has morphed into a smash Tony-winning Broadway musical at the Olney Theatre Center in a co-production with Bethesda's Round House Theatre. Tickets have been so hot, that they extended the production before the show even began. And on Opening Night, the two Artistic Directors from both theaters, Jason Loewith (Olney) and Ryan Rilette (Round House) announced a further extension until October 22. They announced that 21 performances had already been sold out. What a way for Olney to start its' 80th season and Round House its 40th season.
You may ask why? Well, the answer is the superb music and lyrics by Miranda, the clever book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the incomparable direction and choreography by Broadway veteran Marcos Santana, the amazing talented cast and musicians, the vibrant set by Olney Theatre Resident Artistic Associate Milagros Ponce de Leon, moving lighting by Cory Pattak, exceptional sound by Matt Rowe, and the realistic costumes by Frank Labovitz.
Director Santana comes with quite an impressive resume. If you were lucky enough to see his work at Olney in the hit musical CARMEN: AN AFRO-CUBAN MUSICAL you will understand his incredible musical acumen. He was also involved with the Broadway cast of ON YOUR FEET and in fact was not able to attend opening night at Olney due to his work with ON YOUR FEET in Amsterdam along with IN THE HEIGHTS Assistant Choreographer and actor/dancer and ON YOUR FEET veteran, Luis Salgado.
The ensemble dances like you've never seen on stage. They also have superb vocal talents.
This show is just plain filled with talent.
In the Heights takes place over three days around the 4th of July during a blistering heat wave and even includes the great "Black Out" of 2003 when the power in Manhattan was gone for three days.
Playing the leading role of Usnavi the owner of a Washington Heights bodega is Robin De Jesus who was Tony-nominated for his role as Usnavi's cousin Sonny on Broadway. Now sprouting a beard, De Jesus has the task of replacing the work of composer Miranda who portrayed Usnavi on Broadway and he accomplishes this tough task. Playing his cousin Sonny is Michael J. Mainwaring who I would compare to the "energizing bunny". He flies all over the stage. Did anyone notice him jump rope using the flag of the Dominican Republic?
The show has a thrilling pulsating opening number "In The Heights" in which "Usnavi" introduces the close-knit neighborhood and its array of characters like the owners of the Car Service "Rosarios", Danny Bolero as "Kevin", his wife, "Camila" (Vilma Gil) and their daughter "Nina" (Mili Diaz) who has just returned from her freshman year at Stanford.
Working for the car service is the "the non-Latino" Marquise White as "Benny" who has his eyes on Vanessa. White had this same role at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Another veteran of that cast is Tobias A. Young as "Piragua Guy" who sells flavored ice from his cart and deserved his strong ovation of the number "Piragua". Broadway Director Thomas Kail Director notes on the CD (which I highly recommend) that Miranda decided to write a song for the Piragua Guy who had very few lines. Kail questioned Miranda by saying, "He gets a song?" Miranda then wrote "a solo showcase for Piragua Guy". One more Toby veteran from IN THE HEIGHTS is Melissa Victor.
Watch for the incredible moves of Juan Drigo Ricafort as "Graffiti Pete" who flies all over the stage.
There's a beauty salon that is run by "Daniela" (local favorite and talented Natascia Diaz) and her staff of two, "Carla" (Melissa Victor) and "Vanessa" (Linedy Genao) who wants to leave the neighborhood if only someone could co-sign her lease for a new apartment. Daniela announces her salon is moving to the Bronx due to a rent increase.
Assisting in the choreography is Rebecca Kritzer who sparkles on stage as a member of the ensemble.
An anchor of the cast is Rayanne Gonzales as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who brought up Usnavi after his parents died. She is the rock of the neighborhood who arrived from Cuba in 1943 and spent her life cleaning homes on the Upper East Side of New York. She reminisces in the heart-wrenching tune "Paciencia Y Fe" (Patience and Faith) and she got a tremendous ovation.
I must admit I have a strong affinity to Washington Heights since my daughter lived actually on 181 St. and you will notice it is represented by a subway sign and even has a subway grate which spurts smoke from the trains below.
It is a fascinating neighborhood beginning to be gentrified. There is the large Hispanic community and yet Yeshiva University is just up the street with an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue. Maybe that's why Miranda includes a Yiddish expression "schmutz" in the song "It Won't Be Long Now" and the Hebrew word for a toast "L'chaim" in the song "The Club". Even Donald Trump is mentioned in the song "96,000" about a winning lottery ticket sold in the bodega. Usnavi raps that if he won the lottery, "Donald Trump and I on the links and he's my caddy!" (The show opened in 2008.)
In addition to the ensemble I noticed there are two swings in the cast which is highly unusual. They must learn almost of all of the music and choreography and be able to step in for a cast member at the last minute. They are Willie Garner and Briana Taylor.
The success of IN THE HEIGHTS must include the terrific nine member orchestra led by Conductor/Piano Christopher Youstra. Also on Keyboard is Matt Dohm, Andy Axelrad (Woodwinds and Flutes), Chris Walker (Trumpets), Joe Jackson (Trombone), Ken Hall (Guitars), Yussef Chishom (Bass), Danny Villanueva (Drums) and Alex Aucoin (Percussion).
Before you come, check out the great material at www.InTheHeights2017.com and for more information visit the dramaturgy blog at otc-dramaturgy.tumblr.com.
I always appreciate theaters that sell CDs of musicals. Olney has a habit of doing so. You can purchase the CD for $20 and book/lyrics for $18.
It so wonderful to see this amazing musical in such an intimate setting as the Olney Theatre Center.
Act quickly to get tickets and I MEAN it!! Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
Set your DVRs for November 10, 2017 as PBS' "Great Performances" presents an encore presentation of "In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams."
I loved this show so much that I returned to see it again the last week of the run and must acknowledge the four understudies who went on and were wonderful: Melissa Victor as "Vanessa", Briana Taylor as "Nina", Eunice Bae as "Carla", and Willie Garner "Ensemble Member".
I was also stunned to notice that under the subway grate on stage there were a bunch of rats to make it realistic. Credit goes out to Properties Master Kate Brittingham. You truly had to walk up to the stage and look under the subway grate to notice.
Finally, I am pleased to report that the cast had a goal of $96,000 (like in the song from the show) to raise money for hurricane relief. Well, the audiences came through big time raising $105,231.22 for the Hispanic Federation, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Action, and the American Red Cross. Congratulations to the cast and audiences!