'In the Heights' blends rap with barrio rhythms

March 7th, 2013
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Here’s a theater tip — secure tickets for Saint Louis Center for the Arts’ Hawaii premiere of “In the Heights,” directed by Kyle Kakuno and choreographed by Ramon Del Barrio playing this and next weekend (through March16) at Mamiya Theatre. You won't regret it.
High schoolers are in the cast, and they bring terrific voices and awesome salsa moves to the inspiring Tony-winning endeavor about family, neighborhood, culture and the zeal to succeed.
Oh, and this one adds hip-hop and rap — along with rich textures of Latin and salsa. In short, this is a street party with a lot to applaud.
The central character is Usnavi (the source of the name is the US Navy, so watch for its telling), who operates a bodega in a Washington Heights barrio in New York City facing redevelopment.
Usnavi dispenses coffee along with wisdom, leadership and chatter, serving as kind of a junior mayor, as introduces and exposes the nature of life in the tenements and sidewalks of the barrio.
Call him the voice of the immigrants, set to the intoxicating rhythms of Latino culture in the Broadway template.
The Usnavi role, created and originally enacted by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, requires a charismatic figure who can quickly establish audience contact in this mulit-cultural soap opera. (He and his show won Tony awards in 2008).
As Usnavi, Patrick O’Toole is spot-on. He’s a helluva rapper who sets the tone and temperament of community pride; he leaves most of the heavy-duty singing to the rest of the cast. And his rap in the show’s opening title song handily defines and introduces the character and community where there is a lot of stress amid a mounting mess.
His loyalty and respect for his abuela (grandmother) Claudia (Monalyn Aparra) is shared by the residents, and we learn a lot about him and his character.
He has a crush on Vanessa (Kaena Kekoa), who works in a beauty parlor, and she dreams of excaping the confines of the barrio — much like the Jeffersons of the old TV series, did — movin’ on up from the ’hood.
The underlying message of the show is that hope and goals can be achieved; the quest for making the impossible is possible. In this case, exiting the barrio is a recurring dream; a return to the Dominican Republic, where opportunity and satisfaction await, is the destination. Or the Bronx of the Village.
There are everyday folks, with mundane issues: Nina (Kiloni Ramo), a neighborhood girl who returns from Sanford to her barrio community, albeit with some new challenges; her romantic ties to a non-Latino, Benny (Poasa Aga), who works for her parents Kevin and Camila, (Kai Hohman and Malia Lane), who operate a gypsy cab company; Sonny (Brian Jay Regala), Usnavi’s cousin who constantly gives him tips on how to woo his secret love; Daniela (Kiana Lum), a beauty parlor owner forced out of the barrio and heading to the Bronx because of expected redevelopment; Piraguero, the piragua guy, who operates a shave-ice type cart.
Miranda’s score is abundant and awesome, which includes power ballads as well as the raps, and the Latino tempos engage a lot of full-cast dancing. Indeed, the footwork and zest here are as spectacular as the gym dancing by the feuding families in the classic “West Side Story,” which, of course, similarly explored the vagaries and challenges of community loyalties.
Kudos director Kakuno and choreographer Del Barrio, who ignite the actors and dancers and elevate the high-water mark of student-cast musicals at Mamiya Theatre. You may not sing or hum the tunes from “In the Heights” as you exit the theater, but you certainly will buzz about the level of professionalism and the element of accomplishment in the team effort, both off and on stage.

‘IN THE HEIGHTS’
When: 7:30 p.m. March 7, 8 and 9, 2 p.m. March 10, and 7:30 p.m. March 14, 15 and 16
Where: Mamiya Theatre, Saint Louis School
Tickets: $22 adults, $18 students, seniors and military, at 739-4896, tickets@mamiyatheatre.com

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