Friday, September 23, 2011

REVIEW: In the Heights (Manila) by Atlantis Productions

Carlos P. Romulo Theatre (Manila), Friday September 16

This staging of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical, In the Heights, by Atlantis Productions has all the necessary street vibe without going overboard with the “yo-I-am-rapping-and-I-am-cool” cliché.

I am not particularly a huge fan of rap music, but I do have to admit that when rap is used carefully in musicals, it does elevate itself to a form that straddles between spoken words and music lyrics. While the movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera (based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, starring Beyonce Knowles and Mekhi Phifer) got mostly negative reviews, the movie did make the prospect of the migration of rap to the world of musical more palatable. In the Heights, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, beautifully infused the musical with some rapping that beautifully bridge and delineate the narration from the rest.

This new production, however, was careful to ensure the rapping stays within the realm of the book and doesn’t explode into over-the-top, hand-chopping, ghetto-style hip-hopping. Director Bobby Garcia understands that at the heart of this sweet and sentimental musical is a manageable barrio of Washington Heights (New York), filled with real people holding on to their American dreams, while nervously coping with the changes around them. Whether it is cultural affinity, social empathy, artistic ability or a combination of them, the musical worked extremely well with the creative team and cast.

At the heart of the truly fabulous cast is Nyoy Volante’s Usnavi (named after one of the first sights his parents saw when they arrived in America, a US Navy ship). Volante does not fit your regular leading man stereo-type… he is not particularly tall or handsome. However, Volante’s Usnavi was attractive because he is that good, sincere and funny person that every gal would at the end prefer and settle for. Bibo Reyes, playing Sonny (Usnavi's sidekick), was a revelation. His Sonny was a bundle of kawaii, naughty and cute, large and cuddly… cough… cough… a natural comedian and an actor to watch out for. Tex Ordonez as the salon owner, Daniela, was a fire-cracker of gorgeous outrageousness. K-la Rivera’s Nina Rosario (the start college student of the barrio) was beautifully sang and dramatically promising. Felix Rivera (whom I saw in Atlantis Productions’ Next to Normal) maintained his polished self in the role of Benny, the non-Spanish-speaking love interest of Nina. I do wish though that he can be just a tad more spontaneous.

If there is one big disappointment in this production, it has to be the choreography. This salsa-flavored soap opera needed that extra kick from the dancers and the choreographer to truly mark it as that great award-winning musical. Unfortunately, for this production, the dancers were not skilled and versatile enough and the choreography was in divergence with the Latin-sentiment of the musical… no joy… no fun… and pathetic salsa.

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
September 2 - 18 2011

Creative Team:
Director: Bobby Garcia
Musical Director: Ceejay Javier
Choreographer: Cecile Martinez
Scenic Designer: Mio Infante
Lighting Design: Jay Aranda
Costume Designer: Twinkle Zamora

Artists include:
Nyoy Volante: Usnavi
Ima Castro: Vanessa
Felix Rivera: Benny
K-La Tivera: Nina
Calvin Millado: Kevin
Jackie Lou Blanco: Camila
Tex Ordonez: Daniela
Jay Glorioso: Abuela Claudia
Bibo Reyes: Sonny
Tanya Manalang: Carla
Jummy Marquez: Piragua Guy

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