Monday, May 13, 2013

Soaring to New Heights at the Boston Center for the Arts - SpeakyEasy Stage Company's Boston Premiere Production of "In The Heights"

It is a wondrous thing that the iconic “A Train” stopped by Boston Conservatory to pick up a load of talented passengers on its way to Washington Heights! The cast of the current SpeakEasy Stage Company’s  Boston Premiere production of  “In The Heights” features, by my count, no fewer than eleven actors who are either current BoCo students or recent graduates.  The other performers come from a variety of backgrounds, including Broadway, National Tours and Off-Broadway credits.  The resulting mixture of energetic young talent and more seasoned veterans is a tasty pico de gallo mixture that Sunday’s Press Opening audience found irresistible.

I have come to expect nothing less than excellence when I walk in the door to enjoy any SpeakEasy Stage Company production.  They did not disappoint this time around.  Let’s begin by talking about the foundation upon which this soul-stirring production is built.  The musical was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book and lyrics and created the role on stage of Uznavi, the protagonist and ringmaster/rapper.  (The fascinating derivation of the name “Uznavi” is revealed as the narrative unfolds).  Ms. Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book, which very deservedly was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  She also won a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical.  Under the imaginative direction of Paul Daigneault  and inhabiting the picture-perfect set designed by Jenna McFarland Lord, the cast transforms the proscenium stage in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA into a very credible facsimile of Washington Heights, with its sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and complex interplay of hope and despair.

How do I even begin to do justice to describing the work of this cast?  There are no weak links; each member of the ensemble gives of her all or his all in every gesture, every sneer, every smile, every note.  The principals each deserve to be highlighted, so I shall try to do so.

Diego Klock-Perez is captivating as Uznavi, the struggling bodega owner.  Much of his dialogue and soliloquy are in rap format.  I am not a huge fan of that particular art form, so I was wondering how I would handle a show that is in part driven by rap exposition.  Diego won me over.  I was on the edge of my seat seeking to absorb not only the content of the message but the strong ethos behind it.  Señor Perez nails this part, and is in many ways the epicenter of the production.

Nina and Benny

The luminous Santina Umbach plays Nina, the great hope of the neighborhood, who has returned to NYC from Stanford University after losing her academic scholarship.  How does she tell her parents and her neighbors that she has failed?  And what does she do with Benny, the young African-American employee of her father’s car service, for whom she has feelings?  Played by Jared Dixon, Benny is just the right mix of dangerous street smarts and vulnerable diamond in the rough.  The chemistry between Umbach and Dixon is palpable and very believable.  Their nascent romance against racial odds brings a wonderful West Side Story element to this tale – complete with balcony scene.  Their balcony duet “Sunrise” opens Act 2 on a high note, their voices and spirits blending seamlessly.

Carolyn Saxon anchors the neighborhood’s sense of family and community as Abuela Claudia – everyone’s grandmother figure.  She cooks, she advises, she reminisces, she plays the lottery.  Her hauntingly beautiful song, “Pacienca y Fe” (“Patience and Hope”) is an emotional highlight of the play.

Uznavi and Abuela Claudia

Nina’s parents, the Rosarios, are torn over how they should address their daughter’s setback at Stanford.  The marital tension is palpable, and convincingly portrayed in word and song by two strong actors - Tony Castellanos as Kevin and Nicole Paloma Sarro as Camila.  They each have a signature song that advances the plot and deepens the sense of place and history.  Kevin’s “Inutil” (“Useless”) is a heart-rending cri de coeur.  And Camila’s “Enough” throws down the gauntlet to both husband and daughter to find a way to reconcile their differences.  The song left the audience breathless.

Three women work in the beauty salon that is ground zero for neighborhood gossip.  The three of them are perfect in their portrayals, played with zest and gusto by Jasmine Knight as Carla, Alessandra Valea as Vanessa, and the incomparable Merissa Haddad as Daniela, the proprietress of the shop.  All three women shimmer in their roles, with Daniela being given a little more freedom to strut her stuff with attitude and fire.

Jorge Barranco’s portrayal of Sonny, the malcontent young cousin who works in Uznavi’s bodega, is a source of constant delight and wonder.  His mischievous faux innocence and over-the-top attempts at seducing every señorita within the 10033 Zip Code are right on target.

Adding texture to the neighborhood are Anthony Alfaro as the Piragua Guy, and Sean Jones as Graffiti Pete.  Alfaro struggles to sell his shave ice treats – a throwback to the “old country” – amid a mounting threat of competition from the Tastee Freeze truck.  Graffiti Pete at first appears to be a nuisance with his omnipresent spray painted messages, but in the end, his work of art becomes pivotal to the denouement of the plot.

Christian Bufford, Sarah Crane, Lauren Csete, Melanie Porras, Chris Ramirez and Adrian Ruz round out the cast of neighborhood denizens, and they add a nice picante zest to the proceedings through their dancing and singing.

I must add that during Sunday’s performance, the power to the light board appeared and disappeared intermittently.  The cast soldiered on as if nothing had happened, and the technical glitches did not in any way detract from the audience’s enjoyment of the show.  Whenever the energy provided by N-Star to light up the stage proved to be unreliable, the incandescent  energy generated by the all-star cast more than made up for the lack of candle power.  The cast handled it all with “Pacienca y Fe” (“Patience and Hope”)!

This is a show that must be seen.  Ticket sales have been robust, and the run of the show has been extended through June 16.

Book your tickets now and be lifted to new heights of empathy and understanding of those who have come to this country to make a new life and a new dream, but who hang on with all of their might to the customs and memories of the old homes in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba.  Ascend to The Heights!



1 comment:

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