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