Monday, September 05, 2011

High marks for In the Heights

After being let down by Atlantis' staging of Aida, I had my trepidations about their next production, the recent Broadway hit In the Heights. I'd heard so many raves about the musical during my last trip to New York that I was afraid it might not meet my expectations. In addition, I was watching on opening night, and I was worried there might be kinks that come with a first-time performance. Thankfully, Atlantis was in fine form this time around (they seem to do particularly well with large, boisterous ensemble casts), and I enjoyed the show from start to finish.

Most musicals, even the best ones, have parts where there's a slight dip in action, where things get a little bit slow, including the songs. But just like Avenue Q, In the Heights doesn't seem to have such a lull, even when the music slows down. From the rousing rap that kicks off the story to the joyful finale, the tempo of the play remains upbeat as the audience is given a glimpse into 3 eventful days in a lively Dominican neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York. The lead character is Usnavi (Nyoy Volante), an all-around nice guy who runs the corner bodega and dreams of someday returning to the Dominican Republic, his parents' homeland. He and his cousin Sonny (Bibbo Reyes) were raised in America by Abuela Claudia (
Jay Glorioso), the kindly neighborhood matriarch. Usnavi is smitten with vivacious Vanessa (Ima Castro), who works in a beauty salon run by flamboyant gossip Daniela (Tex Ordonez). Meanwhile, Usnavi's buddy Benny (Felix Rivera), who works at the car service dispatch of Kevin and Camila Rosario (Calvin Millado and Jackie Lou Blanco, respectively), falls for the boss's daughter Nina (K-La Rivera), the pride of the barrio who made it into Stanford.

I've seen Nyoy Volante in 2 previous Atlantis musicals (Legally Blonde and Hairspray), but this performance in In the Heights eclipses them. I don't know if it's because his general look fit good-natured Usnavi to a T, but he made for a quite charming, loveable lead. Also, I was very impressed with his rapping skills, although sometimes I couldn't understand the lyrics because he was going machine-gun fast and "swallowing" some of the words. Ima Castro, who disappointed me in Aida, was pretty good as leading lady Vanessa, getting to show off both her solid singing and dancing skills. Ditto for my Atlantis favorite Felix Rivera, who is always a standout in any role. His chemistry with Nyoy, and more importantly with K-La Rivera, contributed to the great vibe of the show.

K-La was a revelation. My friends and I all agreed she was wonderful, with all the makings of a star. Her crystal-clear vocals had a purity to them similar to Lea Salonga's, her acting was very natural, and she's SO pretty (as Ria kept saying). But I thought the real scene-stealer was Bibbo Reyes, who earned the most laughs from the audience with his comedic portrayal of bumbling tough guy Sonny. I must also give props to Tex Ordonez for her seemingly effortless, flawless turn as Daniela, playing her like a sassier, Hispanic Fran Drescher.

Calvin Millado and Jackie Lou Blanco did all right in the roles of the protective parents, but I felt Jackie Lou's performance was a bit tentative and could have been more forceful, especially in the scenes where Camila lays down the law. But her singing voice was certainly pleasant enough (as Raqs pointed out, you wouldn't expect any less from Pilita Corales' daughter).

The music of In the Heights is more energetic than the usual Broadway soundtracks because it's infused with rap and salsa, and the choreography similarly features hiphop and Latin dances. Given that, I think younger audiences would better enjoy this musical, although more mature viewers might also appreciate the premise of immigrant culture and mentalities, plus the themes of home, belonging and self-actualization.

In the Heights is running until September 18, so you can still catch it at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati. It's a colorful, fun fiesta of a musical, and the spirit is deftly captured by this well-directed local production. It's nice to see Atlantis back at the top of their game with In the Heights.


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