What Did You Say? Something about a Bordega?

Today, we went to the Pantages Theatre to see In The Heights, the 2008 Tony Award winning musical whose tour finally came to Los Angeles… and I was reminded yet again why I hate the Pantages theatre with a passion. The Pantages was built in the early 1930s as a Vaudeville house, but until 1977 was an elegant movie palace. You know the type: ornates ceilings with lots of art-deco rococo, super fancy staircases, etc. It was retrofitted in 1977 to be a stage house, and has served as home to numerous productions since then (it is currently the home of Nederlander’s Broadway LA series, the “successor” to the LA Civic Light Opera). I’ve been going to the Pantages since 1980 when I saw “Barnum” there; other shows seen there have included “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (1982); “The Lion King” (2000); “The Producers” (2003); “Hairspray” (2004); “Wicked” (2005). Every time I’ve gone (except, I think, the first productions where I could afford good orchestra seats), the Pantages hasn’t failed to disappoint. The problem: the sound. The palace wasn’t built as a stage house, and the sound bounces everywhere, hurting the production.

This afternoon’s production was no exception. We had great balcony seats… but could only understand about three-quarters of the words said or sung. This made the story hard to follow, hindering our enjoyment of the show. So now, of course, you want me to summarize the story. I’ll have to turn to Wikipedia for help: “In The Heights” is primarily the story of Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who runs a bodega in Washington Heights, a barrio in New York. Usnavi is not the only character: it is the story of Usnavi’s assistant; the story of the Rosario family who run a taxi service, and whose daughter, Nina, has just dropped out of Stanford; and the story the salon next to the bodega: the owner Daniela, her friend Vanessa. It is also the story of Abuela Claudia, who immigrated from Cuba and has served as grandmother to Usnavi. When Abuela wins $96,000 in the lottery, we see how the money affects the life of this community. The website for the show describes this generally as follows: In the Heights tells the universal story of a vibrant community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open, and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind.

If you read the full synopsis, you’ll see this is a complicated interwoven story. It truly helps if you can hear the words of the dialogue and songs.

Acting wise, the performances were impressive. We were lucky to have the originator of the Usnavi role (as well as the author and composer of the show), Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the lead role. He was great, with rapid hip-hop style patter telling the story (again, it helps if you can hear that rapid-speak). You could tell he was comfortable in the part. The other leads were Rogelio Douglas Jr. (Benny, the dispatcher for the Rosario’s Taxi service); Arielle Jacobs (Nina Rosario, who was back in the barrio for the summer after dropping out from Stanford); Elise Santora (Abuela Claudia); Sabrina Sloan (Vanessa, a worker in the beauty salon next to the bodega and the love interest for Usnavi); Danny Bolero (Kevin Rosario, the owner of the Taxi dispatch and Nina’s father); Natalie Toro (Camila Rosario, Kevin’s wife); Genny Lis Padilla (Carla) and Isabel Santiago (Daniela), the owners of the salon; and Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Sonny, Usnavi’s assistant). All were strong singers and actors—I particularly liked Sabrina Sloan, Natalie Toro, and Arielle Jacbos. Rounding out the cast were David Baida as the Piragua Guy, Jose-Luis Lopez as Graffiti Pete, and the ensemble members: Sandy Alvarez, Christina Black, Natalie Caruncho, Oscar Cheda, DeWitt Cooper III, Wilkie Ferguson, Rayanne Gonzales, Rebecca Kritzer, Joseph Morales, April Ortiz, Carlos Salazar.

The production was directed by Thomas Kail (assisted by Casey Hushion), and was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also came up with the original concept). Choreography was by Andy Blankenbuehler, with Daniel Cruz and Kristina Fernandez as dance captains. Musical supervision and orchestration was by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, with musical direction by Justin Mendoza. Michael Keller was music coordinator. The fight director was Ron Piretti.

The sets, which were quite good, were designed by Anna Louizos. The excellent costumes were by Paul Tazewell. The lighting was by Howell Binkley, and felt like tour lighting: adequate, but it gave off that programmed feeling. The follow-spot operators should be chastised for not keeping up with the actors. I did, however, like the lighting for the fireworks. I’ve already complained about the sound design by Acme Sound Partners: it may have been adequate in the original theatre, but needed adjustment for the problematic Pantages. John S. Corker was the general manager, with Brian Lynch of Theatretech as Technical Supervisor. Marian DeWitt was the production stage manager, assisted by Joel Rosen and Katrina Stevens as stage managers.

In The Heights” continues at the Pantages through July 25, 2010. You can get tickets through Broadway LA; discount tickets for selected days are available through Goldstar Events.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Monday is a little something different: the DCI Southern California drum corps tour (the Western Corps Connection) in Riverside on July 5. The next weekend (July 10 @ 8pm) is the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie”. The third weekend of July brings ; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 and the July “Meeting of Minds (Catherine the Great, Daniel Cromwell, and Daniel O’Connell, starring Gary Cole, Penny Peyser, Ian Buchanan and Jim Handy) on July 18. The 4th weekend brings Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24, and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum on July 25. July or August should also bring [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre (July 16-September 5) — I’m just waiting for tickets to show up on Goldsar. In terms of what is ticketed and calendared, August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1, and (hopefully) “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl (pending ticketing) the following weekend. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.