Show takes American dream to new heights
Bam! In the Heights hits the stage at full-throttle, a high-energy blast of Grammy-winning salsa and Latin pop, swirling choreography and quickly recognizable characters.
Now at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2008 never lets up in its fervent attempt to ingratiate itself with the audience. And it usually succeeds.
While the story is set in the ethnically Spanish-speaking enclave of Washington Heights in Manhattan’s upper reaches, and the sensibilities of its street setting is urban, the show’s themes resonate with anyone who has ever marveled at the American dream.
The music (and lyrics) from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the show and starred in its long Broadway run, is superb. The score blends Latin pop with hip-hop and adds a layer of old-fashioned Broadway show tunes, perhaps making the Latin rhythms and mild hip-hop-inspired lyrics and delivery accessible and agreeable for ears not already attuned to them.
Portrait of a neighborhood
The show opens at dawn with the electrifying title song, beginning three days in the lives of a neighborhood and its denizens. Bodega owner Usnavi (David Gregory) takes us on a tour of the street and its stories, highlighting the hopes and the dilemmas coloring daily life in a neighborhood on the cusp of change.
With vigorous choreography from co-directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey and choreographer Christen Svingos, the two-dozen-member company gives us a vibrant introduction to a series of intertwined vignettes. And the vigor of the performances never lets up.
A mix of newcomers and Toby’s regulars, the cast immediately gets to the core of their characters in what is essentially a soap opera, and wins us over. That’s essential in overcoming the rather flawed book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, which relies heavily on exposition and broadly written characters and story lines.
The vignettes all seem familiar, recycled through Latino-infused vernacular and attitude. Some of the exposition — telling, rather than showing a story — takes place in the songs, but any awkwardness there is offset by the hip-hop nature of some of the selections, which allows characters to rap their way, more or less naturally, through plot details.
Still, the stories are stale, enlivened primarily by the emotive music and vivid acting and choreography. Clumsily constructed emotional manipulation of the audience actually succeeds because each of the leading actors is able to reach within and offer us something that feels real.
Usnavi and his grandmother, Abuela Claudia (Crystal Freeman), dream of returning to the Dominican Republic. Spirited college freshman Nina (Alyssa V. Gomez) is seeking both the nerve and the money to return to Stanford University after dropping out. Her hard-working parents Kevin (David Bosley-Reynolds) and Camila (Tina Marie DeSimone) face selling their gypsy cab company to help her.
Their African-American employee Benny (Marquise White) struggles to win their acceptance as he and Nina fall in love. Usnavi, meanwhile, loves Vanessa (Nadia Harika), who longs to escape the neighborhood, along with her bad credit score and alcoholic mother.
Throw in a sub-plot of a winning lottery ticket, and some other characters who mostly provide comic relief, and the overall effect — the blend of story, character and music — is a pleasing theatrical mural.
Emotional and compelling songs
“It Won’t be Long Now,” an Act One song featuring Vanessa, Usnavi and Sonny (Ryan Alvarado), a teenage employee at Usnavi’s bodega, is more schmaltz than salsa, but Harika’s outsized performance adds grit and emotional heft to the show tune. It’s intense, compelling and ultimately uplifting. “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”) is a stirring exploration of the clash of aspiration and struggle, as Freeman’s Abuela leads the company in a floor-filling mélange of melody and melodrama.
Act Two opens on a somber note, following a somewhat cataclysmic ending to the first act. It seems like a bleak dawn after the festive first act. But we know the innate humanity of the people in this neighborhood will overcome tribulation, and we’re not disappointed.
Soon enough, it’s time for “Carnival del Barrio,” another high-energy production number featuring Santina Maiolatesi in her happy Toby’s debut as Daniela, wise-cracking owner of a beauty salon who is eager to re-locate her shop to a better area.
I say production number, but here at Toby’s, that means a floor filled with dancing and singing, with just a few minimal props, as it’s theater-in-the-round, and that round space has to serve food just prior to the show. Still, the dance is so eye-catching and vibrant, and the singing so joyous, and the music so pulsating, that nothing else is really needed.
The music, as always at Toby’s, comes from a small live band tucked away in a cramped room, augmented with synthetic sounds emanating from a keyboard.
“Alabanza,” mourning the loss of a beloved character (more by-the-numbers emotional manipulation from writer Hudes), becomes an elegiac anthem and a highlight of Act Two.
Also of note is the too-brief singing of Tobias Young, in the mostly walk-on role of Piragua Guy, who sells piragua, a frozen, syrupy concoction popular in Puerto Rico. He ends Act One with the song “Piragua” and reprises it near the end of Act Two, unleashing a sweet, soaring voice that we need to hear more of in future productions.
The show’s story takes place July 3 through July 5, and Toby’s production runs right through the 4th of July holiday. It’s fitting, as this is an American tale, however often it has been told.
Ethnic buffet dishes
Making this production a sensation for the palate, as well as the eyes and ears, Toby’s has mixed in some Dominican-flavored dishes to its usual evening buffet fare, included in the ticket price.
These include “Abuela’s Pork Goulash,” Dominican Chicken, Pasta Del Dia, “Carnaval Corn Medley,” “Benny’s Broccoli Con Queso,” “Caribbean Braised Cabbage,” and “Arroz de la Vega,” which is fiesta rice with spicy tomatoes.
In the Heights continues through July 21 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia.
The show runs seven days a week. The doors open at 6 p.m. for dinner at evening shows Monday through Saturday and at 5 p.m. for the Sunday evening performance. Following the all-you-can-eat buffet, the evening performances begin at 8 p.m. except Sundays, when show time is 7 p.m.
Doors open for matinees at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Sundays for brunch, and performances begin at 12:30 p.m.
Reservations are required. Ticket prices range from $35.50 to $54, depending on which performance is selected. There is ample, free parking on the premises.
For reservations and more information, call 1-800-88TOBYS (888-6297) or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.
Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theater critic.