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Monday, May 13, 2013

Reaching the Heights at Toby's

The ensemble for In The Heights at Toby's Columbia
Qué espectáculo! There are 96,000 reasons to love In The Heights now playing at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre in Columbia through July 21.  But space constraints permit me to go over just a few.  Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey ably co-directed this production and took it to new heights with outstanding orchestration, a talented likeable cast, and a superb set.
Lin-Manuel Miranda composed the music and lyrics, and Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book for the four-time 2008 Tony Award-winning show, which captured Best Musical among the statues.  It also won a Grammy for Best Musical Album.  Miranda wrote the first draft in 1999 as a sophomore in college, and it was an ongoing project until it moved to Broadway.

The action takes place in the gritty, largely Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge during a typically sultry three-day period surrounding July 4.  Each character has his or her story, but they are all connected in some fashion.  A youthful, vibrant ensemble added spice to this rich mixture of contemporary urban hip-hop, Latin rhythms, family drama, economic hard times, community, love, devotion, expectations, dreams realized and those not fulfilled. 

The setting is realistically amplified by the creative design work by David A. Hopkins.  Placing a series of three dimensional panels depicting New York’s skylines around the upper walls of the theater, it allows Lighting Director Lynn Joslin to illuminate a silhouetted sky to coincide with the time of the day—a wonderful effect.  So detailed is Hopkins that he even had chewing gum stuck to the neighborhood’s light posts.
In the Heights contains many high points in the way of individual musical performances, either as solos or duets.  The main performers along with the rest of the ensemble also burnished their talents in the stirring high-energy production numbers like “96,000,” “Blackout,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.” 

The ensemble sang and danced with dazzling energy to the music that in some instances contained a mix of Spanish and English lyrics.  However, the songs were composed in a way that one didn’t have to know Spanish to understand their messages.  While some of the numbers are not necessarily melodious, they are all solid because of the powerful and affecting lyrics as well as the amazing vocals by the cast members. 
Numbers, such as “In The Heights,” “Breathe,” “Inutil,” “No Me Diga,” “Paciencia Y Fe,”  “When You’re Home,” “Sunrise,” and “Everything I Know” stood out.  Most of the high tempo songs (and the better ones) are performed in the first act while more ballads can be heard in the second—a distinct change in mood.

Christen Svingos’ choreography presented solid, realistic urban Latino dancing to the thumping beats supplied by the magnificent orchestra led by Cedric D. Lyles.

David Gregory is remarkable in the role of Usnavi, a Dominican-born owner of a small bodega (corner store)  who is a central character throughout.  His passion and hopes are conveyed with great skill.  Most of his dialogue and songs are performed in rap, and he is quite proficient at it.
Crystal Freeman is moving as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia who practically raised Usnavi after his parents died.  She is the neighborhood’s loveable matriarch, the moral anchor.  Her stellar voice is evident in the tender “Paciencia Y Fe” and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Nadia Harika who plays Vanessa, Unvavi’s love interest, also possesses a glorious singing voice. Her performance in “It Won’t Be Long Now” shined.
Also spectacular with her vocals is Alyssa V. Gomez as Nina.  She was the one member of the “barrio” (neighborhood) who went off to college (Stanford University) on a scholarship only to fail in her first year, deeply disappointing her parents. Her rendition of “Breathe” is memorable, and fortunately she performed in a few other selections.

Nina’s father, the overprotective Kevin and owner of the local taxicab business played by David Bosley-Reynolds, is sturdy in both acting and singing.  He brought his commanding baritone voice that audiences loved as Tevye in Toby’s recent presentation of Fiddler On The Roof  to this production, especially in his emotional solo “Inutil (Useless).”
The always reliable and talented Tina Marie DeSimone is wonderful as Nina’s strong-willed mother Camilla. Skillful in her acting, she shined in her powerful rendition of “Enough.”

Another standout is Marquise White as Benny, who is in love with Nina and an employee of Kevin’s taxi service and is the only non-Hispanic character.  Also possessing strong acting and musical ability, Mr. White was particularly effective in the duets “When You’re Home” and “When The Sun Goes Down” with Ms. Gomez.
Santina Maiolatesi as Daniela, the chatty owner of a beauty salon, was effective in that role and also demonstrated her vocal prowess in “No Me Diga.”  Her employee, Carla, was played well by Olivia Ashley Reed.

Then there is Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, who works with him at the bodega.  Played fabulously by Ryan Alvarado, the character provided most of the comedic moments in the show.  Mr. Alvarado’s timing and stage movements excelled.
Rounding out the sterling cast is Tobias Young, another strong vocalist, as the Piragua Guy and Calvin McCullough as Graffiti Pete.

This production of In The Heights at Toby’s soared thanks to the amazing work in all the theatrical elements as well as the efforts from an enthusiastic, youthful and talented ensemble.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

In the Heights runs through July 21 at The Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311, 1-800-88TOBYS or onlinehocoblogs@@@

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