'In the Heights': Culturally sound and sounding great
- Mirava M. Yuson () - September 12, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It may be the nth musical that takes place in New York and the nth and a half to deal with the coming-of-age of rowdy but well-meaning youth. The play is as classic as Broadway gets, with characters lining up to summarize their dreams in a single song and falling back on elaborate dance numbers when things aren’t looking up. But Atlantis Productions’ In the Heights (directed by Bobby Garcia of Next To Normal and Xanadu fame) proves that a fresh coating of cultura and sprinklings of earnestness can still provide new spins to a theme some may consider rather overused.

Eager to please, the Tony multi-awardee (Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations) and Pulitzer Prize finalist attempts to juggle a multitude of storylines at once — and succeeds for the most part.

It’s caught in a quasi-fusion of sorts between West Side Story and Rent, dispensing one social issue per character. When looking at the complete set, you’ve got at least poverty, education, assimilation and family values, which, coincidentally enough, make In The Heights hit close to home quite a lot.

Washington Heights and its bodegas resemble Manila enough (although we can only dream to have a sprawling bridge in our landscape), and the Dominican-American neighborhood is surprisingly easy to appropriate for our actors. No one bats an eyelash when Spanish phrases start being tossed around. And when the rapping starts? Instant head-bobbing, even when salsa gets thrown into the mix.

Perhaps echoing Tony and Maria from West Side Story, the fire escape is an important marker for Benny (Felix Rivera) and Nina (K-La Rivera).

The combination of vastly different music styles doesn’t make it as chaotic as one might expect; in fact, it’s one of the musical’s central unique factors. There’s a bit of jazz, as well as the usual character ballads. But the trumpets and saxophone runs in elaborate dance numbers gradually soften as they pave the way for rambunctious bass lines and freestyle rap. The transitions are tasteful and teasing enough, but avoid crossing the threshold into lazy mash-up territory.

Bearing the brunt of it all is main character Usnavi (Nyoy Volante), the bodega owner who spends most of his time brewing excellent coffee and having conversations with the girl of his dreams — which, unfortunately for him, are nowhere near as slick as the verses of his inner thoughts.

Though he is a background fixture managing the cash register for much of the play, Usnavi is the crux of it all. His story is intertwined with those of a slew of characters, starting with his former caretaker Abuela Claudia (Jay Glorioso), the barrio’s Spanish-speaking fortune cookie, known for her motto “Pacienca y Fe.” The charmingly goofy Sonny (Bibo Reyes) and Graffiti Pete (Altair Alonso) are Usnavi’s cohorts, as is Benny (Felix Rivera) at times. He is the only non-Tagalog — I mean non-Spanish-speaking member of the community, and works for married couple Kevin (Calvin Millardo) and Camila (Jackie Lou Blanco). Their daughter Nina (K-La Rivera) has just unceremoniously returned after a semester at Stanford University. Lastly, beside Usnavi’s store is a salon run by Daniela (Tex Ordoñez), employing both Vanessa (Ima Castro) and Carla (Tanya Manalang).

Within a span of two days, life is changed for the residents of the community. It is not due to an outside force threatening to shut them down (though most of them are in a constant fight to stay afloat), but rather because everyone is on their own personal brink of change, and some dreams happen to clash with others.

There are characters you end up siding with, and characters that remind you of people you hate. Moreover, their personalities and intentions are so varied that you see yourself as at least one of them, whether as the college student who’s broke, the one who’s desperate for any change, or the one who just wants things to stay the same. Language barriers, a hazy sense of nationalism, and generational gaps make it all too easy to see Washington Heights as your own barrio, and at the end of an unnaturally warm day, everyone even buys piragua (snow cones), yelled with the familiar yodel and pitch of a taho vendor.

The summer heat in the barrio fails to wipe the smiles from the residents’ faces.

Being able to put yourself in their salsa-or-breakdancing shoes is what makes the characters’ journeys so compelling. Even if some choices don’t surprise anyone, there are twists and turns about the play that do. Examples: that Nyoy Volante can rap, that Ima Castro can really dance and that Tex Ordoñez has the accent, charisma and poise to play Gloria in a Filipino version of Modern Family.

There are heartfelt and memorable scenes even sans the rapping and dance numbers, mixed with lighthearted humor and “oh snap!” moments. And such neatly bizarre combinations could only serve to make you further feel at home.

* * *

In the Heights will have stagings on Sept. 9, 10, 11, 16 and 18 (8 p.m.), Sept. 9 and 17 (2 p.m.) and Sept. 11 and 18 (3 p.m.) at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza. The previous production Next to Normal will also be re-staged from Oct. 7 to 16. For tickets, call Atlantis Productions at 892-7078 or 840-1187 or Ticketworld at 891-9999. For information, visit www.atlantisproductions.com.

ALTAIR ALONSO FELIX RIVERA IMA CASTRO K-LA RIVERA NYOY VOLANTE TEX ORDO USNAVI WASHINGTON HEIGHTS WEST SIDE STORY
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