‘In the Heights’ at Act Two @ Levine by Bev Fleisher

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Those voices! That dancing! The acting! I was among the audience members who leapt to their feet for a hearty standing ovation to the cast and all of the behind-the scene-workers who obviously had put their all into making Act Two @ Levine’s scintillating production of The Tony Award-winning In the Heights an amazing experience.

Noah Kieserman (Usnavi) and Max Fowler (Sonny). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

Noah Kieserman (Usnavi) and Max Fowler (Sonny). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

The Broadway production of In The Heights, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, won Tony Awards in 2008 for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations.

Though In the Heights is set in a community as it undergoes change, at its core it is all about the meaning of home and family. Moving through a time of upheaval, community members have to decide what traditions, values, and friendships they will keep and which they will abandon. Director Kevin Kuchar selected this particular musical so that the cast was able to tell a story that isn’t caught up in some of the more typical music theatre devices. I echo his sentiments when he states, “And I think that freshness, that sense of life, shows in their performances.”

I could write a love note to each member of this talented cast. And I apologize in advance for not being able to do so. So I’ll tell you just a few of my favorites. Noah Kieserman, as Usnavi, rapped his way throughout the performance with emotion, heart, and clear enunciation, so I could focus on the story line rather than trying to figure out what he was saying. It was a heart-felt performance.

When Carley Rosefelt, as Nina, first opened her mouth and sang the first notes of ‘Breathe,’ my jaw and lots of other jaws dropped. Her vocals were magical. She, and many other members of the cast, inhabited the stage as if it was their home turf. Bryce Gudelsky brought her own very special voice and demeanor to the role of Vanessa and to her gorgeous vocals in “It Won’t Be Long Now.”

Tyler Lazzari (Kevin) transfixed me with his solo, “Useless,” in which he laments his inability to help his daughter with the necessary finances to get through college. His wife, Camila (Carla Astudillo), provides a counterweight in her powerful solo, “Enough.” Abby Keyes (at the Saturday matinee) and Rachael Schindler (on Friday night) were a hoot as sassy Camilla and lit up the stage with their fiery renditions of “Carnivale del Barrio.” Max Fowler brought the right combination of humor, assertiveness, and energy to his performance as Sonny.

Carley Rosefelt (Nina) and Marc Pavan (Benny). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

Carley Rosefelt (Nina) and Marc Pavan (Benny). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

I loved the duets sung by Nina and Benny (Marc Pavan). Their beautiful renditions of “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down” provided space to breathe and take in the real story. Josephine Riggs conducted a fine group of  musicians (and also played keyboards) in her pit orchestra, and their outstanding playing of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wonderful score further deepened the meaning of each song and musical narrative.

In the Heights uses English, Spanish, Spanglish, and an ‘Oy Vey!’ or two. I was surprised to learn that only two of the main cast members spoke Spanish and a couple of others had some acquaintance with the language. Jhonny Maldonado (Piraguero), in his song “Piragua,” reaffirmed the amount of work it took to learn enough of the language, with the right accent, to make the characters believable. When you add in the difficult and high-energy dancing and general attitude needed, it is a feat one might not expect of a cast ranging from 7th to 12th graders.

Director Kevin Kuchar wore several hats in this production: director, set designer, and costume designer. The stunning set placed the action firmly in the midst of Washington Heights in New York City. Lighting Designer Scott Selman not only provided beautiful lighting but also provided fireworks that had the audience cheering, but was also responsible, along with assistant Aidan Gray, for the crisp sound.

Bryce Gudelsky (Vanessa). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

Bryce Gudelsky (Vanessa). Photo by Carmelita Watkinson.

This year, Act Two@Levine has formed a collaboration with CityDance. Choreographer-in-residence Zac Norton provided a kaleidoscope of Latin-infused movement and dance. I complimented a cast member on being “quite the Latin dancer,” to which she responded, “I learned the hip movements by dancing the hora at many Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties.” And a special kudo to Liam Allen who contributed some amazing breakdancing moves and lit up the stage every time he appeared.

This astoundingly entertaining and moving production of In the Heights continues to buttress Act Two @ Levine’s reputation as ‘the strongest and most innovative musical theatre education presence in the region.’

You have a chance to see the final performance at 2 PM today. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Two and one-half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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In The Heights ends its short run today at 2 PM at Act Two @ Levine performing at Georgetown Preparatory School – 10900 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, MD. Tickets are available at the door for $20.

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Joel Markowitz, who saw the Friday, November 15, 2013 performance, also contributed to this review. Bev Fleisher saw the Saturday, November 16, 2013 matinee performance.

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