Look at the fireworks! Light up the night sky— in Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts’ Teen Professional Production of In The Heights. Having made its regional debut at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia during the 2013 summer season, the refreshing Tony Award-Winning musical takes to the stage with CCTA for a riveting evening of theatre that will shake up the heart, stir the soul, and leave fireworks in your mind’s eye for the rest of the summer. With Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this new style of musical showcases the versatility of talents featured in the CCTA Teen Professional program. Directed by Jessica Binder with Musical Direction by Ross Rawlings, this is one sizzler summer that you won’t want to miss.
While the performance is performed by some of the most outstanding talent that the Howard County area has to offer, credit and praise is also due to the production staff for assembling a professional atmosphere in which the students of the program are able to perform their production. Set Designer Nathan Rosen works the barrio into a functioning street block with a great silhouette of the power-tower grid across the back of the stage while Costume Designer Larry Munsey authenticates the street feel of the performers with their modern grunge NYC clothes. The sky is ablaze with fireworks, sunrises, sunsets, and everything in-between thanks to Lighting Designer Jimmy Englekeimer. This trio of hardworking professionals create the perfect atmosphere for a quality production, which enables these young professional performers to do their best work and feel at ease during their performance.
It’s Choreographer Rachel Kemp who deserves a nod of respect for her impressive footwork featured liberally throughout the show. It is one thing to be able to choreograph a large ensemble piece in the style of In The Heights, a task at which Kemp more than succeeds. But it’s Kemp’s natural flare for capturing emotional essence of a scene or a song and infusing that into the rhythmic motions of her routines that makes her stand out as a choreographer. The routines are not only complex but convey a great deal of the character struggles and feelings throughout the performance. All of the dance performances given in the production are top notch, but particularly soloist dancer DaJuan Tyler-Curtis, who is featured during The Club Scene. Kemp puts a unique signature on the dance moves of this production; a rich and rewarding successful execution of the overall emotional vibe of the show.
Performances across the board are outstanding. Director Jessica Binder, working with Musical Director Ross Rawlings, packs the ensemble full of powerful singers who really punch pizazz into company numbers like “96,000”, “Carnaval del Barrio” and the title number. Between the frenetic and exuberantly energetic dancing and the powerhouse voices that really deliver surges of harmony, the ensemble is a force to be reckoned with and really brings out the cheers from the audience throughout the show. In addition to having strong sounds, this ensemble understands the importance of emotional balance and brings down the volume in favor of importing feelings into numbers like “Alabanza” a true heartfelt moment in the production.
Featured performers Abbie Weinel and Marcus Campbell, who serve as the Bolero Singer and Piragua Guy respectively, make their vocal mark on the performance with talented voices that are perfectly situated to the songs they sing. Weinel has a classical operatic sound to her voice which makes for rich velvety melodies during the moments that the “Bolero Record” is played, and her perfection with matching intonation for the moment of the “Record Skips” is beyond compare. Campbell has a robust sound for both of his Piragua numbers and really sells his personality into the character during these moments.
Carla (Maya Celeste) and Serena (Hailey Ibberson) provide comic and vocal support to the sassy spitfire Daniela (Cassie Saunders) over at the beauty salon in the Barrio. Ibberson and Celeste may be minor character but they, much like Campbell and Weinel, put their mark on the production with incredible voices and powerful personalities that they work into every opportunity that they get. Celeste and Ibberson provide resounding vocal backup during “No Me Diga” as well as “Carnaval del Barrio” and blend great three part harmonies with Saunders throughout the performance.
Saunders is nothing short of a saucy, sassy, and sizzling in the role of Daniela. With a belt the size of her glorious personality, Saunders owns her big solo number in the second act, “Carnaval del Barrio” and really blasts the audience with her physical prowess as well as her sparkling personality. There isn’t a moment when her character takes the stage that she isn’t noticed, and this serves the role of Daniela with exceptional justice.
Graffiti Pete (Orlando Davis) has slick moves when he’s spinning cans outside the shop or running away with Sonny (this performance Jack Patterson.) Davis has fantastical footwork that is featured throughout the production, but also balances that physicality against a smooth temperament; the shining moment for which comes at the very end of the production. Patterson is a rapping genius, particularly during “96,000.” His spunky attitude jives well with Usnavi and the other interactions that he has with various residents of the Barrio.
Next up to bat: The Rosarios— Kevin (Nihir Nanavaty) Camila (Emily Smith) and Nina (this performance Alessandra Lopez) who run the cab company and struggle in the Barrio. They do not, however, struggle as performers, as each one of them brings an incredible and unique character quality to the stage in addition to their sensational voices. Nanavaty and Smith are doting parents, each with a temper that is reflected at various points throughout the production. Nanavaty brings emotional turbulence to the forefront of his portrayal during “Inùtil” and later during “Atencion.” Smith lays down the law of mothers with “Enough,” a true explosive outcry of frustrated anger and a mother’s tough love.
Lopez, whose voice soars like a spirited songbird, understands the musical nuances of each of her songs and imbues them fully with emotional connectivity. “Breathe” is a wondrously beautiful moment that exposes her character’s turmoil in addition to showcasing her range and ability. Lopez’ rendition of “Everything I Know” is striking; a true testament of her emotional grounding when she sings. Often paired with Benny (Daniel Ayoola), Lopez finds dulcet harmonies that vividly express her love and forlorn sorrows in numbers like “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Ayoola has a warm voice that is a perfect complement to Lopez every time they sing together. His characterization of Benny adds humor to Usnavi’s love life crisis and when it comes time to patter-rap through “Benny’s Dispatch,” he handles the number with rhythmic panache.
The glue of the street corner, the happy yoohoo that keeps everyone going through the heat, Abuela Claudia (Brooke Bloomquist) and her bird crumbs of simplicity. Bloomquist does an exceptional job with the role, falling easily into the physicality of a character much older than her person. But it’s her strong and powerful vocals that dominate “Paciencia y Fe” that get her character noticed. Blending in solid harmonies with Usnavi for “Hundreds of Stories” Bloomquist showcases her vocal versatility in this number and manages to keep her “abuela” sound even when singing.
Vanessa (Isabella Lopez) is the girl everyone has their eye on, even Usnavi. Lopez’ voice is an aural representation of a caged bird of beauty trying to burst free. Steeped in the trappings of Vanessa’s emotional drama with her mamma and living situation, Lopez brings an earnest struggle to the character and really sets defiant determination to flight in “It Won’t Be Long Now.” Standing stalwart during “96,000” her and Patterson, as the ever persistent Sonny, bring a rational but emotionally grounded counterverse of “powerless” in this song which really augments the musical complexity of the show.
Lights up on Usnavi (this performance Joshua Huff-Edsall) who guides the audience through the show of his story; the narrative force that tells his and all the stories of the Barrio as they unfold before our very eyes. With a firm handle on the street-savvy personality and exceptional timing to his patter-rapping, numbers like “In The Heights” and “96,000” become reminiscent of their Broadway glory. It’s Huff-Edsall’s emotional tethers to the character’s soul that really tug at the heartstrings. Both his breakdown during “Hundreds of Stories” and the spoken intro leading into “Alabanza” are so stirring and evocative that it is nearly impossible not to cry. A true storyteller with a raw vulnerability that opens Usnavi to the audience, Huff-Edsall really fits the groove of the role and delivers a sensational performance.
The show is blazing with new music, energetic dance routines, amazing talent, and a rare opportunity to see this sparsely produced show in the Howard County area. The showings are limited— with only four remaining— and the tickets are selling quickly so be sure to get them before you miss your chance to see In The Heights.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
In The Heights plays through July 19, 2015 as the Teen Professional Production at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts hosted in the Glenelg High School Auditorium— 14025 Burntwoods Road in Glenelg, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (410) 381-0700 or purchase them online.