What did you do Mother’s Day? Just think, you could’ve seen popping, locking, breaking and tutting by some of the area’s best dancers in the first regional production of the hot Broadway musical In the Heights. You’d be hard pressed to match this Toby’s ensemble for sheer energy and verve. And they pulled that off after serving up food to a packed house and clearing both tables and the buffet train at Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s in Columbia, MD. My hat’s off to them all!
The next best thing about the evening was how the space itself served the musical. Not only did the performers play “regular folk”, but their characters were indeed people who served others: street vendors, dispatch officers, shop keepers and neighborhood hairdressers. (It made the talent-as-wait-staff an intentional extension and made me appreciate our actor/waitor Calvin, the onstage Graffiti Pete, all the more.) Also, being enveloped in an in-the-round space, the action happened all around us and helped us feel the jostling bustle and hustle of the streets of way-upper Manhattan.
In certain numbers, there were twenty-five people packed on that stage, and everyone contributed to the overall experience of the evening. The dancers and the numbers just kept on feeling fresh and sassy, blending urban, angular explosive isolations with swaying Latin hips. Big kudos go to Christen Svingos, choreographer, who featured the personalities and unique movement skills of each dancer.
Artistic Director Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey co-directed this show, and they know how to get the most out of the space.They assembled stage action to be playing simultaneously in every nook and cranny. Similarly, set designer David Hopkins knew how to keep the set from becoming a cumbersome nuisance. He limited himself to semaphore-like street-and-shop signs to set locales of each subgroup story, one over each exit and even created a most realistic fire escape that could be lowered and raised, leading up to a second floor landing where laundry hung outside the window.
It’s not a show without flaws. The story stumbles and bumbles along for quite a time as it sets up characters and atmosphere. Graffiti Pete starts the show running on stage with spray cans and tagging the shop of Usnavi, who, as a baby, immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic, and is working to make his little shop turn a profit while trying to get up his nerve to ask out the hot hairdresser babe Vanessa. In turn, she just wants out of the hood.
Neighborhood pal Nina has, in fact, gotten out – all the way to Stanford University – but has just returned, having dropped out of college and lost her courage as well as her dreams. She reconnects with Benny, her father’s young non-Hispanic dispatcher, and they struggle with their growing romantic attraction and her parent’s disapproval.
Pretty ho hum. It’s not until Nina’s dad, played beautifully by David Bosley-Reynolds, drops the bomb that he’s going to sell his business, putting his wife and others who depend on him out on the streets, in order to ensure his daughter’s return to college for a shot at a better life, that the stakes get high enough for us to really care.
Bosley-Reynolds puts across convincingly that he’s an Hispanic immigrant, who bullies his family and workers in order to try to stay ahead in the game and to lift his family out of a marginalized existence. His rendition of the song “Inutile,” about a father’s feelings of helplessness, is heartbreaking. From that moment on, the dramatic action jumps into focus.
There are plenty of other strong performances. David Gregory, as Usnavi, in many ways carries the show in his dual role as character and narrator/chorus. He stokes the scenes with his screwball energy while his “rap” choruses rollercoaster us through the ups and downs of life in the barrio. Only occasionally does it get so fast and so busy on the stage that it’s hard to stay on the ride.
Ryan Alvarado as Sonny and Calvin McCullough as Grafitti Pete are both terrific in their sidekick roles to Gregory, and Alvorado, in particular, nearly steals the show with his miffed bad attitude. Alyssa V. Gomez and Nadia Harika are well matched as the two lead chicks who have grown up side by side but clearly developed different styles and choices to survive life on 181st Street. Harika is alternately cynical and sassy, and a natural flirt, who can’t help attracting the bees to her honey. Gomez is effervescent and appealing as the character most divided in her loyalties between her obvious intellect and her need to be accepted on home turf.
Marquise White as Benny, Nina’s love interest, gives a solid and mature performance as the straight-up guy who clearly is deserving of A-student Nina. He’s got leading man’s looks with a good vocal range and warm sound.
There is plenty of stereotype strutting going on. Maybe too much. Santina Maiolatesi’s character Daniela slings out zingers in a role that seems a crudely drawn Broadway type and “accessory” to the plot. I could have used more grounding in these scenes.
There are also some real problems with the sound that still need to be worked out. Gomez’ immature voice needs so much amplification that it threatens to distort on her belted high notes. Even with the support, you can clearly hear her vocally strain, cutting out the overtones so that her voice does not blend well with White in the love duets, which should be lovely but aren’t there yet. Janine Sunday’s voice in Act I was almost incomprehensible due to similar distortion, but it got better in the Act II. Crystal Freeman sensitively played the key role of everyone’s beloved “Abuela,” but whether it was the accent or the sound system, she was hard to understand at times. But these problems will probably be corrected by the time you see it.
In the Heights
Closes July 21, 2013
Toby’s Dinner Theatre – Columbia
5900 Symphony Woods Road
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $49 – $54 (includes dinner or brunch)
Wednesdays thru Sundays
I was impressed with the sound that Music Director and conductor Cedric D. Lyles got with only six musicians. Hot hot hot.
I also appreciated some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s composition when it experimented with more sophisticated, through-composed dramatic scenes such as “Champagne” between characters Vanessa and Usnavi and “Benny’s Dispatch” between Nina and Benny. Orenstein and company got the moment-to-moment relationship playing in these songs just right.
Nonetheless, it’s the dance ensemble that I’m going to recall with the greatest pleasure.
So, big confession, how do I reconcile my snooty reluctance to accept dinner theatre as “legit” with what these folk are putting across in In the Heights? Theatre fellow aficionados, we gotta wake up and take notice of the talent, grit, and “good entertainment value” of these mostly young performers. Come on, the Helen Hayes committee has already given the nod to this pool of talent.
In the Heights . Music & Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda . Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes . Directed by Tony Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey . Music Direction by Cedric D. Lyles . Featuring Jason A. Phillips, Ryan Alvarado, Olivia Ashley Reed, David Bosley-Reynolds, Tina DeSimone, Mili Diaz, Scean Flowers, Crystal Freeman, Alyssa Gomez, David Gregory, Nadia Harika, Javi Harnly, Rachel Kemp, Santina Maiolatesi, Calvin McCullough, Erin McNerney, Moses Rodrigues, Ada Satterfield, Melissa Victor, Marquise White, Tobias Young . Set design: David Hopkins . Choreography: Christen Svingos . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.