Park Playhouse Scores with Winning “In the Heights”

There are moments with outdoor theater when the elements conspire with the story to give you a dazzling effect as if nature itself were jealous of all the attention paid to the storytelling and wanted to get in on the act. Just as the opening chords of “96,000” were throbbing from the bandshell and the star of the evening Adam James King as Usnavi was about to launch into what he would do with a winning lottery ticket, the sky above the stage transformed with generous swaths of dusk’s soft pink and peach mottling the clouds above. A glorious sunset with a soft breeze as free, beautiful and accessible to all as the joyous celebration of life’s changes “In the Heights” exploding from the stage nightly thru 7/27 on the stage below.

What a fantastic choice of musicals Producing Artistic Director Owen Smith and his staff have chosen for us this year! The Capital Region could not be more excited about Lin-Manuel Miranda having snapped up all 40,000 tickets to his “Hamilton” coming next month to Proctors, the musical is a modern story of a community as family which bursts forth with the sounds of the city-salsa, meringue and rap and America is gripped by our treatment of Latin-Americans in the internment camps at our borders. 

“In the Heights” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other show, his first Broadway musical which went from a student production when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in 2000 to its debut on Broadway in 2008 garnering thirteen Tony nominations and winning four including for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography. He is responsible for the music and lyrics and another Pulitzer winner, Quiara Alegria Hudes wrote the book and shares duties on the lyrics. A movie based on the material is filming now and scheduled for release next summer.

The Heights in the title refers to Washington Heights, the close-knit, largely Hispanic-American enclave on the upper West Side of Manhattan that thrives in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. Much like “Hamilton”’s opening number, “In the Heights” covers three chapters of material in a song. Usnavi runs a bodega whose refrigerator has just quit with his cousin Sonny (adorable Luis Herrera) and in the opening moments chases off a tagger Graffiti Pete (Layland Patrick a fantastic dancer who you can always see thinking) as he introduces us to the neighborhood after Piraguero (Brandon Jones, terrific) has wandered thru selling flavored crushed ice. The Rosario’s (Johnny Martinez and L.A. Sword who have to manage with the most fractious book scenes) run a taxi stand with their dispatcher Benny (Devin Cortez) that requires their drivers to wear ties even on this sweltering 4th of July weekend. Their daughter Nina (Ariana Papaleo) returns home from Stanford because she has lost her scholarship. Daniella (Amanda Serrano) runs a beauty salon with Carla (Joyel Kaleel) and Vanessa (Tara Kostmeyer) who Usnavi is tongue-tied sweet on. Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips) watches over all buying lottery tickets, feeding the birds and cracking us up even if we don’t speak Spanish. Pretty much all this is covered in the opening song.

Adam James King is commanding as Usnavi and wears the duties of the show lightly. You always feel his steadiness that he can handle whatever life has in store until he memorably, momentarily cracks in Act II which makes his final proclamation all the more powerful. Devin Cortez is fantastic, handsome as all get-out, a terrific singing voice and great scenes all night long with the Rosarios, especially Nina. The women in the cast are extraordinary. Park Playhouse alum Ariana Papaleo graduates to a leading role and shines phenomenally as Nina. Ms. Papaleo’s “Everything I Know” brought this NYU student’s return home for the summer to the Capital Region to appear on the Playhouse stage melding with Nina’s tug at the strength she derives from home that makes her strong enough to succeed in the world. Amanda Serrano was another favorite of the evening whose every appearance could elicit laughter but her Daniella was a force to be reckoned with whether playing sweetly as the beauty shop girls with her co-star Joyel Kaleel (stunning and slow) or holding forth over her employee Tara Kostmeyer as Vanessa. Ms. Kostmeyer shined from the opening number and gave plenty of reasons for Usnavi to be driven to distraction by her. The character songs by Mr. Martinez, Mr. Jones, Ms. Phillips, and Ms. Sword are showcases for all.

The veteran Park Director Michael LoPorto does a fantastic job moving the action seamlessly all night, highlighting the tensions driving the characters apart and marshaling all of his team to create this beautiful village onstage.

The neighborhood springs to life in the opening number and the stage teems with energy that doesn’t quit all night as the salsa inflected rap pours forth by the excellent orchestra led by Music Director Brian Axford. It is one of the better sounding nights I’ve ever spent at Park Playhouse, from the music to the miking to the voices, well done!  Choreographers Ashley-Simone Kirchner & Joey Rosario come up with endless variations for the terrific corp of dancers as they move thru the neighborhood or get down at the club, exceptional work by all involved. The neighborhood itself by scenic designer Timothy Clow is comprised of green painted plywood walls which have been voluminously graffiti tagged with glow in the dark paint and littered with advertisements and community announcements. Center stage stand what looks like scaffolding but they are at angles bent in and leaning on each other with facsimile subway stairs underneath and during the first number…they revolve! The revolve opens up different settings throughout the night-the two businesses, a stoop and most effectively Benny’s second floor apartment late in the evening. There was a little too much graffiti for my taste, Washington Heights is a nice neighborhood, but I did like that it glowed and took on a different character as the night progressed. The lighting by David Sexton was fantastic with instruments placed onstage and a neighborhood blackout at the end of Act I which was just superb. 

That may sound odd praising a lighting designer for his work on a blackout but its usually what we need to do under straitened circumstances that define us and show us and others who we are. This neighborhood in the show, Park Playhouse and hopefully our country will make the best moves with the challenging hand being dealt us. The trip through life’s adversity being offered up by Park Playhouse feels like a victory and as Mayor Sheehan offered in her curtain speech “Park Playhouse is one of the reasons I fell in love with Albany.”

Thru 7/27
Tuesday-Saturday weather permitting
Free lawn seating
Premium seats available

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