Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Heights—Stumptown Stages—downtown Portland

“Won’t You Be…My Neighbor?”

This Tony-Award winning musical is playing in the Brunish Theatre (4th floor), 1111 SW Broadway, through May 1st.   It was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also composed the current musical, mega-hit on Broadway, Hamilton), who also wrote the music and lyrics, and book by Quiara Alegia Hudes.  It is directed and choreographed by David Marquez, with musical direction by Mak Kastelic.  For more information, go to their site at www.stumptownstages.org  

For those of you who might remember, or grew up with “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” the above phrase is part of his opening theme song, as he welcomed viewers to his world (or some might prefer Eddie Murphy’s bleaker version on “Saturday Night Live.”).  But, whatever your take on neighborhoods, there are always two sides to that kind of intimacy.  You might then picture, “Sesame Street,” and its alter-ego, in the Tony-Award winning musical, Avenue Q.  Two sides of the same coin, you see?

The beat expands more as you consider the old adage, from Africa, I believe, “it takes a whole village to raise a child.”  The question then becomes, what happens when that “child” dreams of and/or reaches out to the larger world and leaves that nurturing community?  Will they be swallowed up by the concrete jungles or be allowed to shine?  And what of those left behind, as they lose, through death or migration, key members of the pack?  Evolution is a natural part of Life but change is painful, too.

And so we have, the Washington Heights neighborhood, during one long, hot summer.  Our guide into this gnarly garden of contained wonders is Usnavi (Michel Castillo), a gregarious, street vendor and grocery store owner with his friend, Sonny (Matthew Synder), a cool, young tomcat.  His neighbors are the Rosario’s, Kevin/Poppy (Damien Geter), a no-nonsense guy who own a Limo service and his gutsy wife, Camila (Carmen Brantley-Payne).  There is also the caring grandma, Abuela Claudia (Laura Stilwell) and the petite, Stanford-college daughter, Nina (Essie Canty Bertain), home from school.

On the other side of the store is the Beauty Salon, run by a trio of vivacious vixens, Carla (Jalena Montrond), Daniela (Sydney Webber) and Vanessa (Justine Davis).  All who dream of the world, out there…a better life…their White Knight.  Also, into this world, is Benny (Salim Sanchez), a carefree guy, dispatcher at the Limo service, who has his loving eye on Nina (and she on him).  And then there is the optimistic, Piragua Guy (Feliciano Tencos-Garcia), who has a food cart; the elusive, Graffiti Pete (Raphael Likes), who will eventually find his true calling; and a couple of lovely, street-smart ladies, Lydia Fleming and Crystal Muñoz, who flesh out the rest of the neighborhood.

Their world is mostly contained, but with Rooftop Dreams and Champagne Tastes, it will evolve in time.  Then, a night of fireworks and a blackout will change everything.  Their patch of earth will collide with the unknown and what was will be no longer…but this sky full of stars will lead to a new dawning.  Can’t tell you too much, as it would spoil discoveries you should make.  And songs such as “Atencion,” “Everything I Know,”  “When Your Home,” “Patiencia Y Fe,” “Inutil,” et. al. and the dance numbers are fabulous.  Marquez has done an amazing job in such a small space of keeping everything alive and vibrant, and visceral, as well.

The cast is outstanding, all with great voices but my special favorites were Davis, Bertain, Geter, and Stilwell, whose voices shot through the roof.  And Muñoz, who I’ve touted many times before in all sorts of incarnations, from Shakespeare to musicals, is always an asset to a production.  Also the band (with Kastelic and Reed Bunnell, Eric Ching, Ben Finley and Darian Patrick) is truly gifted with some pretty intricate material.

I highly recommend this production.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.