Listen closely while you sit and wait, program on lap, and you’ll hear it. As you study the impressive, heavily detailed set of a Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights before you – Rosario’s Car Service on one side, De La Vega Bodega and Daniela’s Unisex Salon on the other, plus the George Washington Bridge towering in the distant background – the sound of a city awakening slowly swells. It’s a break-of-dawn overture, but not of music. It’s car noises, workman drills, and the sirens of emergency vehicles already called to early morning action. Within moments, the feeling of a hot summer morning in New York City is established, and the show hasn’t even begun. Then the house lights go down.
The Tony Award winning Best Musical, In The Heights, premiered this weekend on Phoenix Theatre’s mainstage, and it arrives with such an immediate burst of color, energy and vitality, it’s practically contagious. With principle characters introduced in song by our central character and owner of the small, corner Bodega, Usnavi (Pasha Yamotahari) and joined by the entire, handsome looking ensemble, there’s so much to look at and enjoy as the cast sing, dance and fill the stage from side to side, backed by the live orchestra’s pulsating, percussive rhythms incorporating elements of jazz, salsa and hip-hop under Alan Ruch’s musical direction, there’s an unwelcome sense of deflation once it’s over; you don’t want that opening number to end.
To call the first production of the theatre’s 2016/2017 season audacious is an understatement. Having seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original production and believing that if there was any musical that could never be effectively pulled off with a similar effect in a smaller, regional theatre only goes to underline the limitations of one’s own imagination. It’s as if the show has thrown down the gauntlet on every Phoenix Theatre production to follow and dares them to compete. Throughout this non-stop, thrilling presentation there’s a continual sense of wanting to leap to your feet at the conclusion of each musical number, just to remind the cast that you’re right there with them.
Robert Kolby Harper has fast established himself as a premiere talent when directing local musical theatre, a position he now undeniably solidifies with In The Heights. As mentioned in previous Phoenix Theatre reviews, his past experience as both performer and choreographer has given him the advantage. He’s become a musical theatre actor’s director, and with recent show after show, he continually draws the best out of his performers. Like the military where a soldier in the field becomes an officer and earns the respect of the infantry more so than someone who by-passed the grunts and came straight out of officer training, Harper has to be all too aware of the doubts and fears of an actor and dancer in ways other non-performing directors can’t. His work here is exemplary.
Technical credits from the clarity of Dave Temby’s sound, Michael J. Eddy’s atmospheric lighting, Kelly Yurko’s wig designs to Cari Sue Smith’s appropriately vivacious costumes all add to the success of the overall flavor of the show’s Latino setting. It’s only problem is Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book.
In The Heights may have been nominated for a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, yet the events within the three days over a hot July week in the culturally mixed neighborhood seem surprisingly lightweight. Unlike the more sensational aspects regularly depicted on TV or film where gangs, drugs, violence and threatening police have a dominating presence, it’s admirable that here Latino life should be portrayed with a sense of realistic normalcy. These are everyday people going about their everyday life and it’s refreshing to see things presented this way without f-bombs dropped like free samples at every opportunity. Yet when the conflicts consists mainly of whether a certain character might go back to college, or another might get her own apartment, or what may befall the uncertain future of the hair salon or the car service, the plots never feel as involving in an epic scaled musical as they should. Plus, ask any potential writer who has taken a creative writing class and they’ll tell you that rule number one is not to include a lottery win in order to take the easier route when concluding someone’s financial woes, though the neighborhood-wide power blackout and it’s aftermath seen at the opening of act two after intermission gives the show a certain dramatic heft. The backstory for each character is more interesting than what develops. In the end, what you’ll come away with is not so much the events that unfold with tidy and wish-fulfilling conclusions but the Phoenix Theatre’s presentation of Miranda’s score – he even references Cole Porter, plus those percussive beats, the pulsating rhythm and the trumpet blast at The Club can’t help but faintly echo Bernstein’s Dance at the Gym – all performed with Nick Flores’ fiery choreography; you practically feel the heat.
Those in the valley theatre community will no doubt be aware of the brief though reasoned contention surrounding the casting of these mostly Dominican-American characters. While this column is not the forum for furthering the debate, from an actor’s perspective looking for employment the arguments are certainly valid, yet from a reviewer’s point of view, what is really important at this stage is the end result; this cast, everyone of them without exception, delivers. A genuine flavor of a principally Latino culture is sustained from the opening moments to the close. All cast members have the unenviable task of being aware of the controversy as they make their initial entrance and put themselves on display. But theatre is artificial, an illusion of events made seemingly real for just a couple of hours if executed well. By default, Usnavi may center your attention but In The Heights is truly an ensemble piece; the bodega owner is ultimately one character of several, even if the story begins and ends with him. Singling individual performances at the omission of mentioning others is a disservice to the work and dedication for the professionalism of the art. From the principles to the high-energy of the ensemble support, this is one outstanding cast in a production you’ll long remember.
Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.