Thursday, March 24, 2016

In the Heights @ The Beck Center 2/12-2/28

Hola! Just had a fantastic time. And why not? Upbeat urban family stories told with Latin rhythms. sweet ballads, and sassy hip-hop blended to good effect in the Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre production of In the Heights directed by Victoria Bussert.

This gorgeous, energetic version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-award-winning debut musical reveals the much-praised Miranda genius now evident in the current Broadway hit Hamilton. Like Hamilton, In the Heights shows how cultural assimilation can be a delicious two-way street.

The action is simple. When the show opens we see Graffiti Pete (a hip Warren Egypt Franklin) spray-painting the audience (or so it seems as a fine mist floats toward us). He stands front and center of a kaleidoscopic view of Washington Heights’ shops, apartments, and bridges. (The scene resembles the Red Grooms mixed media New York cityscape displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Art).

Then, with a whirl of outraged motion, shop owner, Usnavi (lithe, tall, expressive Ellis C. Dawson III) shoos him away and tells us how it is, where he lives, in the barrio.

“Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day/ I wake up and got this little punk I gotta chase away/Pop the grate at the crack of dawn, sing/ While I wipe down the awning/Hey y’all, good morning.” [Take a listen] []

While the carefully-crafted language doesn’t impede the story or get in the way of the vital score, it does add a level of fascination and challenge. What can I say about a character/ who speaks in meter/ not often heard in theater? You might call it hip-hop, but it’s also old-school couplets (day/away) followed by a tercet or triplet rhyming (sing, awning, morning). All this harkens back to 17th and 18th-century British drama (be still my geeky English major heart!)

Others have their own language beat; they all add up to city melody. There’s Piragua Guy (Matt Lynn) issuing percussive cries to buy piraguas (snow cones), Abuela Claudia (Jessie Cope Miller) whose grandmotherly love proves pivotal.

For young love, there’s Nina (sweet Livvy Marcus) torn between her respect for her parents--impatient father (Jared Leal) and seemingly subservient mother (Kelsey Baehrens)--and her attraction to her father’s employee Benny (Malik Victorian). She’s also obsessed because she lost her scholarship to Stanford so can’t afford to go back. (Quibble: Why $$$ to California? Why not less expensive local places, such as NYU?). Usnavi has problems too, including a crush on the spectacular Vanessa (a gorgeous and queenly Christiana Perrault). She works with Daniela (a firecracker Isabel Plana) and Carla (a ditzy MacKenzie Wright) at the beauty salon next door. And there’s Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (a pesky yet cute Michael Canada) who alternately drives him mad and helps him out.

Dances set by choreographer Gregory Daniels allows everyone to weave around the stage in complex patterns that must require split-second timing as onstage musicians led by music director David Pepin provide catchy beats.

Bottom Line: It’s great musical theatre, memorably done. In the Heights and its subjects--human connection, the power of neighborhoods, universal hopes and dreams--makes bold statements. Maybe Usnavi (Miranda’s alter ego?) is not Homer (“Oh muse, sing in me”) and In the Heights is not really a classical epic, like the Odyssey, but in a way it is. How? It shows in a simple relatable way why and how a place becomes home and how a culture’s strength may lie in finding positive ways to incorporate difference.

Photos: William Taylor Bradford @ Bradford Images

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