Friday, July 14, 2017

PALM CANYON THEATRE SOARS TO THE MUSIC OF “IN THE HEIGHTS”

Matt Zambrano and the ensemble of "In the Heights" - Photos by Paul Hayashi

When the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) of Palm Springs, CA opened its doors twenty years ago it made a promise to the community to bring professional-quality, theatrical entertainment to the Coachella Valley. Thanks to the efforts, dedication and vision of the Layne family of theatre professionals – a family rich in producers, actors, directors, designers, and choreographers – PCT has not broken that promise.

I’ve been reviewing their productions for the same twenty years beginning with the opening musical production “The Desert Song”, to their current musical “In the Heights” that opened to standing ovations last Friday, July 7th.

Mind you, there have bumps along the rocky road of producing top theatre entertainment over the years, however, their quality track record is long in Desert Theatre League (DTL) award-winning and praise-worthy productions. Who can forget such wonderful past musicals as: “Man of La Mancha”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Cats”, “My Fair Lady”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Les Miserable” “A Chorus Line” and many, more.  My apologies if I left off one of your favorites. But these come quickly to mind, and I didn’t even mention the dramas and comedies.

Meagan Van Dyke, Adina Lawson
and Benjamin Perez. 
PCT can now add “In the Heights” to its roll call of fabulous musical productions.  With music and lyrics, by double Tony-award winning playwright, actor and director Lin Manuel Miranda (he of “Hamilton” fame) along with a poignant libretto by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this high energy musical, terrifically and seamlessly directed by Shafik Wahhab, is a true ensemble effort both on stage (there are twenty performers) and backstage, with another three-stage crew and production ‘techies’ that help make the onstage magic happen. One can only imagine the traffic-management issues taking place backstage that make the onstage action look so smooth and effortless. It’s one of PCT’s best, dynamic and germane technical efforts and it’s a crowd-pleaser.

The scenic design by Shafik Wahhab and Ross Hawkins and the lighting design by resident theatre design wizard J.W. Layne, and sound design by Lyla Cordova, make sure their talented singers and dancers have the space and lights to perform the high-octane dance routines created by Jacqueline Le Blanc. The musical score that features 23 musical numbers in the capable hands of musical director Scott Smith is both infectious and compelling with sizzling Latin rhythms like Salsa and Merengue performed in costumes either selected by or created by designer Derik Shopinski and his assistants Virginia Sulick and Delinda Angelo.

Haley Izurieta, Allegra Angelo,
Meagan Van Dyke and Megan Ramirez. 
There will no doubt be audience members who feel they have seen this story before; echoes of “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” story points do jump out. But hey, that’s pretty heady company to be in. If you’re a fan of classic plays or modern America musicals about immigrant population issues and the role they play in our 21st century society and audiences, then you will love what the creative team does with “In the Heights”.

The story, in short, explores three blistering hot summer days in a neighborhood in NYC known as Washington Heights on the upper west side, overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. It’s a neighborhood that has been going through changes and is now a neighborhood of mostly Latino residents.

Allegra Angelo, Matt Zambrano
Heading a cast of twenty characters is first generation Dominican-American entrepreneur Usnavi, the owner of the local bodega. He is thinking about returning to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his family and friends following the death of his parents.  Usnavi, is winningly played and sung by Matt Zambrano. Support of ‘family’ and family related emotional issues have always been extremely important to the Latino community.

“In the Heights”, also chronicles the daily struggles of the neighborhood in its day to day existence of raising families, paying the rent and trying keep one’s business from going bankrupt, along with the age-old frustration of the younger residents in not being able to make their own choices in their searches for love, romance, and marriage.

Ian Tang
With a cast as large as this one, it’s always a challenge to list everyone due to space limitations; however there are always standout performances. Heading a cast of twenty performers, including Zambrano’s lead character of Usnavi, is lovely Meagan Van Dyke as Nina, a university student in love with Benny (Joey Wahhab) an employee in her father’s business. Van Dyke, the possessor of a sweet soprano voice is very compelling as a conflicted young woman in love and at odds with her parent’s decisions when it comes to her future.

Nina’s father and mother are solidly played and sung by Benjamin Perez and Adina Lawson. Allegra Angelo, as Vanessa, the love interest of Usnavi, once again turns in another stellar dance and acting turn. Her Mimi performance in the College of the Desert production of “Rent” two seasons ago still resonates. Suzie Wourms, multiple Desert Theatre League award winner, also scores, in a little gem of a performance as Abuela Claudia, in her numbers with Zambrano and the company.

Matt Zambrano and Suzie Wourms.
The principal dancers in this outstanding production are technically and visually stunning in their execution and deserve a mention of their own despite space restrictions. The men are Vertarias Black, who floats in the air in his numbers, Ian Tang, Mat Tucker, Adrian Fernando Vera, Daniel Zepeda, Scott Clinkscales, and Jacob Samples as Piragua Guy deliver the testosterone at all the right moments.The ladies are Marella Sabio as Graffiti Street, who is mesmerizing in her explosive and high energy routines, Haley Izurieta, Megan Ramirez, Ileana Mendoza, Kate Antonov, and Maglia Sabio all provide the sizzling sensuality required in their performances.

The beauty of “In the Heights” lies in the ensemble performances of the entire company where everyone is unselfish, fully engaged, in the moment, committed and dedicated. When performing companies get into this ‘zone’, as they say, it’s a joy to behold and the audience knows it and feels it as well.

This splendid production performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre, in Palm Springs through July 16, 2017.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123.  Don’t Miss It!

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

THE POWER OF QUANTUM PHYSICS AND LOVE ON STAGE AT LA’S GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin star in the Los Angeles premiere of “Constellations” at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Chris Whitaker

What are the odds of a play, whose premise is underpinned with quantum physics, bees, and the seductive power of love that brings two disparate souls together,turning into a riveting evening of intellectual theatre?  Pretty slim, I’d say. And then I saw the play.

“Constellations”, a poignant drama written by British playwright Nick Payne, now on stage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, is deftly staged by award-winning director Giovanna Sardelli and validates the acting gifts of its two stars: pixie-like Ginnifer Goodwin and handsome leading man Allen Leech (best known for his six-year run in the TV blockbuster series “Downton Abbey” as the family chauffeur).

Two-handers – plays that have just two characters – are becoming more popular these days in the age of budget restrictions, except for musicals. These production caveats now place the burden of entertaining the audience squarely on the talent of playwrights, performers and directors, without the benefits of all the bells and whistles of money infused and promotion-driven productions. Most of the time bold, creative, artists pull off the delicate balance of engaging and entertaining the audience at the same time (last year I reviewed the winning two-hander “Heisenberg”, in New York, which opened today with the original NY cast at the Mark Taper Forum).

“Constellations” is another good example of insightful writing in the hands of a stellar director and her two star performers. The compelling story of Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin), a quirky, Cambridge University academic who specializes in in Quantum Physics, and Roland (Allen Leech), a non-college educated bee keeper, who meet at a BBQ party at the home of friends would seem implausible in a traditional play. In this dramedy of sorts, both are shy guests and tend to stay in the background to observe the other guests.

From the moment the stage lights come up, the opening dialogue is repeated several times.The same words, only with different emphasis and timing, leading one to think that a stage glitch had just occurred. No; the repetitive dialogue is intentional. Marianne, we discover, lives in several alternate parallel universes. If the play was meant to be read not performed, the dialogue would come across as a classic quantum physics theoretical essay, except that it’s being performed by live actors on a stage. The obscure world of quantum physics is the world that Marianne inhabits. Roland is a creature of the outdoors and nature, and he is clueless as to quantum physics, but nevertheless he is strangely drawn into this odd coupling and relationship. As Marianne and Roland are two lonely people, could love be in the air? You bet it is. Remember, it’s the most powerful force on our planet.

Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin in
“Constellations”. Photo by Chris Whitaker.
The set design by Takeshi Kata envelops the actors in a way that lends credence to the parallel universe concept. Goodwin and Leech perform in front of a huge ‘cyc’ that displays the cosmos with twinkling stars and planets, and their parallel universe moments are cued by the dialogue. With so many stars and planets, each possibly with a story of their own to tell, there are as many choices in life as there stars is in our universe is the message that playwright Payne is selling. Who knows? Our life journeys are all about making multiple choices. The “what if” factor is a real constant that has to be considered. Director Sardelli skillfully and seamlessly navigates some tricky waters in doing justice to playwright Payne’s murky but compelling tale of love of among the mismatched quirky set as viewed through the lens of quantum physics.

The real beauty to this intriguing and poignant production lies in the hands of its two stars, their onstage chemistry and in their stunning ‘in-the-moment’ performances. There are some spoiler alert moments, but you will not get them from me. You will just have to come to the Geffen Playhouse and see for yourself. Enough cannot be said about Goodwin and her tic-filled, intense portrayal of Marianne. Leech is her equal when it comes to the heart-rending twists that fate has handed these two lovers. Three hankies for the women, one for the gentlemen – yes if you have hearts, that is.

Director Sardelli leads the technical team of scenic designer Takeshi Kata, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova, and original music & sound designer Lindsay Jones.

“Constellations”, performs at the Geffen Playhouse and runs through to July 23, 2017. Don’t Miss It!
-- Jack Lyons