Lights up on Washington Heights! Es Calor! Calor! Calor! Things are certainly heating up at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia as they present the regional premier of the 4-time Tony Award-Winning musical In The Heights, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey with Musical Direction by Cedric D. Lyles, this sensational Broadway smash spices things up with modern Latino flare, a stunning score, scintillating choreography, and the most talented cast of performers I have seen on the stage this season. The barrio of Washington Heights is home to an impoverished Latino community just trying to etch out their place in the world. Follow along with Usnavi, as he guides you through the stories of everyone’s life on his road to discovering what really matters. An astonishing and exciting piece of theatre to really shake things up and drive important life lessons home, this production is simply incredible and must be seen.
The barrio comes to life with Set Designer David A. Hopkins laying down a complex scenic work. Hopkins makes impeccable use of the four square entrances, each one a key store or housing unit in the community. The lampposts are intricately grooved and covered with ABC gum, there’s even a smattering of porch stoops for that authentic feeling of New York City. Hopkins’ silhouette work around the space outlines various key skyline segments and bridges, which are complimented and highlighted throughout the production by Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin’s blissful sunrises and sunsets. Joslin’s gems appear during the club scene and finale of act one, featuring surging pulsing multi-colored lights and then a fierce blackout that is perfectly synched with the musical cues, creating a heightened element of spectacle in the production. Her fireworks truly light up the night sky and bring an added layer of emotional existence to the act one finale.
Co-Director Lawrence B. Munsey takes the constant motion of New York City and keeps it flowing on stage so that there is never a dull moment. Munsey balances all of this constant commotion and action against the main scenes as they unfold, keeping the focus on the principle characters and the dialogue while still maintaining the integrity of the barrio’s busy atmosphere. His blocking and overall staging allows for the audience to easily access all aspects of the characters as they drift in and out of scenes. His casting choices are a godsend with talent beyond compare with this riveting musical.
Working in conjunction with Munsey is Choreographer Christen Svingos. Lending her seasoned expertise to the Latino hip-hop and rap infused score, Svingos and Munsey design a rhythm of dancing that reflects the disjointed moments of storytelling throughout the production; a true example of visionary genius as the pair work together to keep the scenes flowing and full of intricate dance routines. Punctuated with sharp edgy movements, these stop and start style dances fit seamlessly into the more well recognized salsa routines. Svingos’ most impressive work occurs during the nightclub scene; an explosion of good natured chaos all wound up into fierce routines that set the mood for the epic conclusion to the first act. Keep your eye on Javi Harnly, Overall the dancing, if nothing else, can be called creatively contagious as it makes you want to swivel your hips and shake your booty from your seat every time you see it happening on stage.
The residents of the barrio may have no power but that is one thing the ensemble has no trouble with, in fact their voices are anything but powerless. Musical Director Cedric D. Lyles focuses the musical energy of the production allowing it to transcend into the large ensemble numbers as an enormous outcry of emotional unity. Lyles ability to focus intently on the unique fusion of hip-hop and rap in this performance brings out the true nature of the production, letting the gist of all the emotions land on the audience’s ears even when all the words do not.
Energy is thriving in the barrio ensemble; constant movement, constant action— a pulse is forever surging through them from one person to the next, ebbing and flowing like the far off waves of the islands. The keen sense of a tight knit community is palpable among them, making the show that much more realistic. Focus here should find all eyes on Scean Flowers as he skitters to and fro with his phone taking pictures and bringing acrobatics to some of the street savvier dance routines.
Next up meet the Rosario’s they run the cab company here in the barrio. Kevin (David Bosley-Reynolds) and Camila (Tina DeSimone) are as stubborn and strong-willed as they come in regards to hot-blooded married couples. DeSimone proves early on that despite Reynolds holding his own against her, she’s in charge. Reynolds gives a commanding performance of this richly dynamic character juxtaposing his gruff exterior against a very vulnerable man beneath the surface. His body language and facial expressions carry his character’s performance right up until his solo “Inùtil (Useless)” where he proves that his character is anything but useless, pouring this raw and harrowing humanity into the tragic struggle of his current conflicts.
DeSimone is the perfect foil to her hotheaded husband, despite having a temper of her own, though hers is much more subdued and reserved with a sharp witty infusion of humor. She is the slow building storm, each incident pushing her a little farther until she hits that breaking point with her solo “Enough.” Using her own brand of tough love, laced with passionate disgust and gripping fury, she puts her husband and daughter back into place in the family, proving once again if Mamma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. DeSimone brings a conscientious grounded presence to her character’s reality making her one of the most believable portrayals in the production.
Bringing the laughs along with Camila is Sonny (Ryan Alvarado) – Usnavi’s little cousin who helps run the Bodega. Alvarado brings a fresh and edgy approach to this comical character, his piercing intuition for comic timing making him that much more enjoyable. He ruffles Usnavi’s feathers like any good relative ought to and makes himself known with his attempt at dropping hot beats. While not the master of rap like his older cousin, Alvarado masters his own brand of delivering the syncopated rhythm in songs like “96,000.”
The show stealer shows up in the form of the big comic character Daniela (Santina Maiolatesi) the local salon gossip. With the most powerful set of pipes in the production her beautiful belting voice can be heard everywhere throughout the ensemble numbers. Maiolatesi is a blazing pistol whose voice is like a geyser erupting for “Carnaval Del Barrio.” Her sassy attitude combined with her astonishing voice make this number sensational and on top of it all watching her facial features and overall free-moving body clues you in to just how much fun she’s having with this dynamite role. Her comedy comes mostly in the form of tight zingers that zap with a punch; her delivery superb.
But the belts aren’t all saved for Maiolatesi. Piragua Guy (Tobias Young) easily rivals her powerful sound with a unique quality in his voice. Featured in “Carnaval Del Barrio” Young’s ability to hold such lengthy notes at that volume is amazing. His bright-eyed hopeful nature is reflected in “Piragua” and “Piragua (Reprise)” once again showcasing that incredible sound for all to hear.
Rounding off the trio of belters is Crystal Freeman as Abuela Claudia. Everyone’s Grandma, but especially Usnavi’s Grandma, Freeman plays a delightful character that is easy to love. Her tender relationship with Usnavi is well maintained throughout the production in the simple way she speaks with him, but what really makes her shine is her featured solo number, “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith).” When Freeman lets loose her voice in this song you can hear it all the way back in La Vibora. The emotions she expresses into this number are the key to unlocking the incredible details of her past; a mind-blowing hold at the end of the number brings her role to perfection.
Of course what good is all the gossip that Daniela does without lovers to talk about? Nina (Alyssa V. Gomez) and Benny (Marquise White) are the talk of the town for the better part of the performance, having the sweetest most intimate relationship between them. Gomez is another powerhouse to be reckoned with when it comes to her vocal prowess. Her solo “Breathe” encompasses a world of hidden sorrows uncertainties, and confusions that flow out from her soul. Sharing two duets with White, Gomez’s voice switches easily from the light-hearted fun and nostalgic moments to the darkened anguished fear inside of her during “When You’re Home.” And when their voices meld together for “Sunrise” there is an intertwining of love and commitment blended into perfect harmony that just makes you want to swoon.
White is a smooth operator of sorts, laying down his own beats at the dispatch, complete with funky dance moves during “Benny’s Dispatch.” His voice is not only powerful, but it has an incredibly rich sound to it that balances the dulcet and sweeter tones of Gomez’s voice to perfection.
Let’s not forget Vanessa (Nadia Harika) the girl with dreams as big as Usnavi’s. Her voice is flying away on the planes and trains in “It Won’t Be Long Now.” She lets her voice truly soar with passion and feeling as she yearns to break free from the barrio. Harika holds her own in the belting world, as proven in “96,000.” The awkward flirtations between her and Usnavi are precious and priceless. Even the way she inadvertently teases Sonny is just too cute for words. Keep your ears out for her initial entrance during the title number; a superior sound if ever you heard one.
And last but far from least, I’ve saved you the beast— he’s got mad skills ain’t impressed with cheap thrills, the man whose coffee stays light and sweet to keep the barrio up on its feet— it’s Usnavi (David Gregory) the keeper of the legacies, with a nerdy disposition when he’s trying to please— Vanessa, the girl he can’t confess to— loving the way he dreams of leaving, no scheming he’s the best of the best and dressed to impress, the narrator of Washington Heights and all the rest!
Gregory’s ability to master the raps in this production are utterly amazing. Flip-flying through segments in “In The Heights” you catch everything important while still feeling the rhythm, and he never misses a beat. Illuminating the stories of the people in the streets while seriously dropping mad beats in this hip-hop collection of rapping perfection, Gregory brings the perfect balance of streetwise and love-struck to his character. A smitten kitten with Vanessa he doesn’t get to spend a lot of time singing, but when he does, in “Champagne” a duet shared with Harika, his voice is incredible.
Featured again in song with his abuela during “Hundreds of Stories” we get the pure enthusiasm of his rapping ability matched against this phenomenal sound. His overall performance is fierce and passionate; his eyes light up with excitement really longing to bring the audience along with him in his journey. Gregory gives a stunning grief stricken intro to “Alabanza” – the most moving number of the show. With every rap wrapped up in emotion and feeling, every moment clearly present and accounted for, Gregory glows with amazing revelations in “Finale,” a perfectly rewarding ending number to the performance, bringing the meaning of the show full circle.
As a regional premier Toby’s production of In the Heights does great justice to the initial concept of the show – a musical written for the Latino community of Washington Heights by the Latinos of Washington Heights.
Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s stellar production of In the Heights is not to be missed! Everyone who loves musical theatre should run and buy tickets.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.