Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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When the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, hit Broadway in 2008, the excitement it created came from two angles. First, it celebrated the sense of neighborhood and the stresses of change in the largely Latino barrios of New York itself. But on a larger scale, it used contemporary hip-hop and Latino musical forms to celebrate the elemental life force of similar barrio neighborhoods from the Bronx to Huntington Park, and the threats posed to their close-knit fabric by the forces of gentrification. As such it contained a universality which, when combined with the high energy music born from salsa and marenge, became identifiable across cultures and geographic location.
Now this lively, heart-filled musical has opened in a finely polished production at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. With sharp, live percussion, a talented, focused and ensemble cast, and a message everyone can connect to, the show is a sure-fire hit.
The story looks at one block in a low-rent section of New York City. There, Usnavi works the corner bodega left him by his father, and along with his young cousin Sonny provides basic services, and a community center for the rest of the neighborhood. That community includes the Rosarios, owners of a car service and proud parents of Nina, the daughter whose departure for Stanford has become a symbol of “getting out.” Nina’s return brings its own issues, particularly in relation to her interest in Benny, a Rosario employee her parents think of as beneath her.
Also part of the community are Daniella, owner of the hair salon she’s soon to close and move thanks to rent hikes, and her two employees, Carla and especially Vanessa – the girl Usnavi is trying to get up the nerve to ask out. These, a young artistic tagger known as Graffiti Pete, an ambitious seller of fruit-flavored ices known as the Piragua Guy, and a joyously various ensemble of singer-dancers round out the extended family of neighbors. At the heart of all of it is the aging Cuban woman who acts as everyone’s grandmother, Abuela Claudia.
A hot summer, a city-wide blackout, rising personal and communal tensions, and news someone from the Bodega has a winning lottery ticket all combine to create a very recognizable drama, filled with humor, pathos, and all that lively music.
Ruben J. Carbajal proves articulate and deeply committed as Usnavi, providing the glue which holds the show together. Ruben Bravo and Chris Marcos as Sonny and Graffiti Pete vibrate with the energy of youth – kids with hip-hop roots and big hearts. Anyssa Navarro brings to the torn and somewhat desperate Nina a sense of the weight which comes with carrying the dreams of an entire neighborhood on your shoulders, while Revel Day provides a subtle sense of the outsider looking in as Benny.
Dominique Paton shimmers as the troubled but ambitious Vanessa, Orlando Montes as Nina’s introvertedly angry father, and Jackie Lorenzo Cox as her disappointed, practical mother provide a balance of truly adult forces in the mostly youthful tale. Candida Celaya cements all these characters and more together with a subtle power as the fragile Abuela. Indeed, everyone in the cast is right on point, providing one of the most evenly fine ensembles Candlelight Pavilion has had in many years.
But the excellence doesn’t stop there. Director Benjamin Perez uses the small stage as if it was a full city street, and takes the audience there with him. Marissa Herrera’s energetic and organic choreography becomes a physical celebration all its own. Anna Louizos Designs’ adaptation of the original Broadway set continues this polish, as do Karen Fix Curry’s costumes and even Mary Warde’s extremely convincing wigs.
The best of this production comes from the melding of all the theatrical elements into a seamless whole. The story is captivating, the music, though not wildly hummable afterward, proves apt for the story and as organic as the dance. The tech is solid, enhancing the whole. The deep love for the genuine, rounded people being portrayed and their individual and communal struggles is evident throughout. This is a story centered on a strong sense of character – all the characters – and their sense of place.
The secondary joy of any Candlelight Pavilion performance is that it comes with dinner. Make this your night on the town. “In the Heights” will offer up surprises for those who like their musicals more standard, but the surprises will be pleasant ones.
What: “In the Heights” When: Through September 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday September 10, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for brunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 general, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com