Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Village Theatre’s "In the Heights" hits the heights for dancing and excitement

(from top left in circle)
Naomi Morgan, Iris Elton, Jennifer Paz and Tanesha Rass in In the Heights (Mark Kitaoka)

In the Heights
Issaquah: through October 26, 2014
Everett: October 31 – November 23, 2014

(printed in Seattle Gay News)

Did you know that In the Heights is a dance musical?! It is! It’s also a rap musical, and a hip hop musical, and a heartwarming story of the residents of Washington Heights, New York City, bonding through song, and an electrical blackout.

Did you know that the cast of Village Theatre’s production of In the Heights is insanely good? It is! Village has brought back some ex-Seattle residents along with a few guest visitors that ratchet up the talent on stage to unbelievable…heights. (Yup, I said it.)

This musical is so much fun. The music reflects the Latin influences of Washington Heights and even though people are struggling and low-income, they still have self-esteem and drive and dreams of making it. We meet corner-store proprietor Usnavi, who wants to leave the Heights and open a store in the Dominican Republic, home of his deceased parents. In the meantime, he takes care of his father’s store and his cousin, Sonny, and his adopted grandmother nearby.

The other story is about Nina, the smart girl who managed to get a scholarship to Stanford University, but has had to drop out after working two jobs and losing the scholarship due to dropping grades. Her family owns a car transportation service and a young worker, Benny, consoles her about having to disappoint her parents.

Local talent Eric Ankrim directs a cast that includes Perry Young as the lead Usnavi. Young has spent a good deal of time as Usnavi on the national tour of the musical, so that is a huge plus. Young is supremely capable of rapping, singing, dancing and acting like a goof in love.

Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, is played by Naomi Morgan who starred as Mimi in the 5th Avenue’s production of Rent, and plays Vanessa as a bit more vulnerable and unsure of herself than the touring versions. Vanessa’s chip on her shoulder then seems easier to knock off.

Nina is played by Tanesha Ross who handles the ranges of her character’s emotions beautifully, and has a great voice and sweet chemistry with Kyle Robert Carter, another national tour import playing Benny. Nina’s parents are played with verve by Jose J. Gonzales and Pamela Turpin.

Sonny is played by hysterical Justin Huertas whose comic timing is impeccable. Their neighborhood grandma is played by Corinna Lapid Munter who has mostly been seen at the 5th Avenue, and here gives a huge performance (grandma has to be a belter) and wears so much old-age makeup, she’s barely recognizable.

In smaller roles, a couple of hairdressers are played by Iris Elton (Daniela) and Jennifer Paz (Carla). These two talents imbue their roles with panache, both of them coming back to Village Theatre from NYC to hang with us in Seattle again for a while. Another very tiny but crucial role is that of a shaved-ice dealer and Joseph Tancioco shows his stunning voice and his joy of being on stage.

But above and beyond that, there is dancing. National tour dance captain and now local resident and choreographer Daniel Cruz applies his own style to numbers he knows from the inside out. He elevates what is already a fun dance show into a fantastic, evocative dance-stravaganza. He also plays a small role as the spray-can artist.

Along with a real, dancing ensemble (Rylan Bonnevie, Desiree Boyd, Arthur Cuadros, Vince-John Frijas, Rianna Hidalgo, Jenna Lindberg, Nathaniel Padre and Shelby Willis), Cruz infuses the funk and the fun along with sometimes moody moves that shade the emotions of the score.  This is the best choreography we’ve seen on about any stage this year!

All the usual technical supports are terrific as usual, with set and lights by Tom Sturge, costumes by Melanie Burgess and Kelly McDonald, sound by Brent Warwick, and a wonderful band headed by top-notch music director R.J. Tancioco. With Ankrim at the helm, it all comes together.

The show is a pleasure from start to finish. Due to the stellar cast and the great dancing, it’s better than the national tour, seen in Seattle in September 2010. It’s also unique in terms of the ethnicities seen and celebrated on stage and for the styles of music also not thought of as traditional musical theater songs. Make tracks to Village and you may have so much fun you will plan to go a second time!