Lin-Manuel Miranda was greeted as an overnight sensation by many when Hamilton became a huge cultural phenomenon, but like all overnight sensations, the truth was that he had been working for years building up to that success, most notably writing the music and lyrics for the 2008 award-winning Broadway musical In The Heights, which won Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography, and Orchestrations in the 2008 Tony Awards. The show premiered here in Sacramento this week on August 20 to wrap up the great summertime musical season for Broadway at Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion.
The story is introduced by the character Usnavi de la Vega, who owns a small bodega store in the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. Everything in the show revolves around that neighborhood and the people in it on a sweltering July 4th weekend. Rodolfo Solo is playing Usnavi, the role Miranda himself took in the original production, introducing the audience to the neighborhood and the people who live there in the opening title song. He has a real facility for the hip-hop style music while providing the coffee that gets the people going in the morning. He also looks after Abuela Claudia, played by Rayanne Gonzalez, a mother figure to them all who practically raised Usnavi and many of the young people there. She is the heart of the neighborhood.
Tony Chiroldes and Doreen Montalvo play Kevin and Camila Rosario, who run the cab company and await the return of their daughter Nina, played by Didi Romero. She is coming home from Stanford University, where she has been attending on a scholarship, with the rare chance to make it out of the working-class neighborhood and make something of herself. But she dreads telling her parents the truth of her situation, as she relates in the song “Breathe.” Nina and Vanessa, played by Nina V. Negron, are the soul of the neighborhood. While Nina found a way to rise above her situation and fears she has lost it, Vanessa, who works in the beauty shop, is struggling to find her way to a better life, as she sings to Usnavi and his cousin Sonny in “It Won’t Be Long Now.” Both Didi Romero and Nina Negron have great voices, and bring to life their characters longing to rise above disappointments.
Benny, played by Gerald Caesar, Sonny, played by David Merino, and Usnavi are the life of the neighborhood, taking action to try and make things better, for themselves and the people they love. Benny, who works at Rosario’s Cab Company, wants to share his feelings for Nina, and shows off his ambitions in the funny song “Benny’s Dispatch” as he does his best to handle the taxicabs while her father is away. And while Sonny appears to be lazy at first, he shows that he is the one who really cares the most about their neighborhood in the end.
Daniela, who owns the beauty shop, and Kevin, with his cab company, feel the weight of the real world. Both business owners, they do their best to succeed in tough circumstances. When Kevin learns of his daughter’s problems, he feels useless to make things better for her, as he sings in the touching song “Inútil.” Tony Chiroldes has a strong voice and plays the part of the frustrated father with feeling and empathy. But he is also strong headed and wants things his way, frustrating those around him, especially Benny, whom he rejects as not being Latino and a good fit for his daughter. And Daniela, who loves to share some good gossip in her song “Me No Diga,” has decided to close up her shop to move to a better location. Sandra Marante is terrific in that role, with a great voice and command of the stage.
When Usnavi learns that one of his customers has won a lottery prize of $96,000, he and the company get to dream of all the riches they would have if the winning ticket was theirs in the lively song “96,000.” Led by Rodolfo Soto, the song is in the hip-hop style and full of Miranda’s clever lyrics and rhymes, and makes for one of the dynamic dance numbers featuring the whole talented company. But the mood is brought back down to earth as Abuela Claudia tells her story in the touching and powerful “Pacience y Fe,” or Patience and Faith. Rayanne Gonzalez is great playing a woman much older than she is, with her strong but subtle voice and a warm, maternal presence.
The music throughout In the Heights is a mix of traditional musical theatre-style songs with hip-hop, rap, soul, salsa, and other Latin music, which are all combined in the highlight of Act 2, “Carnaval de Barrio,” as Daniela leads the whole neighborhood in a celebration of who they are, despite the troubles they face every day. The enduring character of the neighborhood is represented by the Piragua Guy, played by David Baida, who always shows up with his food and drink cart to bring some good humor and hope to the people, as he shares in his signature song, “Piragua.”
Though some of the lyrics are in Spanish, and some of the music goes by at a fast pace, the story is easy to follow and brings a message of hope and togetherness through adversity. And the 12-piece band, led by Dennis Castellano, is terrific throughout. The music is so encompassing, you may sometimes forget that it’s coming from a live band, featuring a six-piece horn section, right next to the stage.
Directed by Marcos Santana and choreographed by Rickey Tripp, In The Heights opened at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion on August 20 to a very appreciative audience, who thanked the cast with an enthusiastic standing ovation, and runs through Sunday, August 25. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. Broadway On Tour kicks off its new season with the classic A Christmas Story, a musical based on the iconic holiday film, opening November 8 at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, this season’s locale for the Broadway on Tour series while the Community Center Theater is undergoing extensive restoration.
Ken Kiunke, 8/22/19
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing.com. Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Didi Romero and Rodolfo Solo as Nina and Usnavi
Imagine a theater critic reviewing a big musical production, going on about all the things he loves about the show, the awkward and curious moments, the back stories of all the stars, and comparing the show to other productions…sounds kind of familiar to me. But make the show come to life before your very eyes as he describes it, and you have the plot of the musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, which opened here in Sacramento this week on July 9 at the great summertime musical venue, Broadway at Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion.
For a show with its heart in the 1920s’ world of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, The Drowsy Chaperone is a fairly recent addition to the musical comedy world, debuting just 21 years ago and flying under the radar in Toronto for several years until it opened in Los Angeles in 2005, and moving to Broadway in 2006, winning 5 Tony Awards out of 13 nominations, including Best Book and Best Original Score.
With music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, the show takes place inside the head of “The Man in the Chair,” a Broadway musical fan who finds his happy place listening to an old record of a fictional 1928 show called The Drowsy Chaperone, which comes to life in his apartment and before our eyes. The man is played by Emmy award-winning comedy writer, songwriter, and actor Bruce Vilanch, well-known for his mop of blond hair and glasses, as well as writing credits for the Academy Awards, Tony Awards, and Emmy Awards; numerous television appearances; and his own one-man show, Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous.
The show the man is so enamored with is about the wedding of an oil tycoon, Robert Martin, who is played by Matt Loehr, and Broadway star Janet De Graaff, played by Kaleigh Cronin. The opening number, “Fancy Dress,” introduces us to the couple and most of the other characters, including the title character, played by Lynne Wintersteller. She is there to make sure the bride and groom stay away from each other until the wedding, but is really more interested in violating the prohibition laws and having a good time without getting too “drowsy.” Meanwhile, Janet’s Broadway producer, Feldzeig, played by Music Circus favorite Ron Wisniski, wants to stop the marriage and save his star, and doesn’t mind using a couple of gangsters dressed as pastry chefs to help him get his way. Needless to say, hijinks ensue.
Robert then tries to cure his “Cold Feets” with an energetic tap dance, and is joined by his best man, George, played by Jacob ben Widmar, while Janet insists that she is done with the stage by performing a big production number, complete with encore, in the song “Show Off.” Throughout the show, the Man in the Chair, who does get up and join the action at times, explains who each character is and what they are up to, including the forgetful hostess, Mrs. Tottendale (Jennifer Smith), her helpful Underling (Stuart Marland), the Latin lothario Aldolpho (Bradley Dean), and Kitty, the squeaky-voiced starlet who wants Feldzeig to make her a star, played by Danette Holden.
The show is very much an ensemble production, with each performer getting their chance to lead a number or two. Ron Wisniski as Feldzeig takes charge in “Toledo Surprise” with the two gangsters, played by Brad Bradley and Michael Paternostro, in a hilarious and lively song and dance number, and Lynne Wintersteller’s chaperone character gets to sing her anthem to alcoholism, “As We Stumble Along” before she encounters Aldolpho, who seductively joins her in a case of mistaken identity in the song about himself, “Aldolpho.”
Though none of the songs are particularly memorable, they are all funny and move the story along, and the cast all do a great job singing and dancing the numbers, which play quite well in the Music Circus “in-the-round” format, with performers often working up the aisles with the audience.
And Bruce Vilanch is wonderful as the iconic man, showing lots of affection for the show and bringing plenty of subtle humor and some big laughs, along with a few ad libs, as he interacts with the audience and sometimes the performers, though he is mostly weaving invisibly between them as they do the show, and even stopping them when he lifts the needle from his record player. He’s great when explaining both his love for and objections to the song “Bride’s Lament” and his philosophical take on the messages behind “Love Is Always Lovely in the End.”
The big finish involves humorous resolutions to all of the various situations, and the addition of the character Trix, played by Sharon Wilkins, an aviatrix who saves the day with a quite amazing set piece that suddenly appears on stage. And the 13-piece orchestra, led by Dennis Castellano, does a fantastic job supporting the show, with some nice brass sounds and a bit of xylophone for good measure.
The Drowsy Chaperone opened at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion on July 9 to a very appreciative audience, who thanked the cast with an enthusiastic standing ovation, and runs through Sunday, July 14. Probably because it is not a very well-known show, there were a few empty seats on opening night, but it is well worth the effort to catch this one before it closes. And while the show is great fun for all, some of the humor is a bit “mature,” so parents of younger kids should be cautioned. With no intermission, the production lasts just a bit over an hour and a half. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. Broadway at Music Circus continues the 2019 summer season with the classic Guys and Dolls, opening July 23.
Ken Kiunke, 7/10/19
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing,com Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Bruce Vilanch stars to guide you through his favorite show, The Drowsy Chaperone
This is not exactly your grandparents, parents, or maybe even your old Oklahoma! The iconic 1943 musical, which opened Tuesday, June 24 at Sacramento’s favorite venue for summertime musicals, Broadway at Music Circus, was famously Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein's first collaboration and has become one of the best-loved musicals in the American theatre. The duo tried to fit as much as they could into their premiere show—there is romance, comedy, drama, Americana, history, dancing, fighting, and a classic ballet sequence in the middle. And though it never really left the canon of American musical theatre, the show has come roaring back to the Broadway stage this year, and won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Ali Stoker at the recent awards show. (She was also notable as the first Broadway actor who uses a wheelchair for mobility.) The biggest difference in the current versions is the use of an interracial cast in the lead romantic roles—something that would have shocked most audiences over much of the show’s 75-year history, but brings a new freshness to the venerable production.
The narrative of Oklahoma! is the story of two young ladies trying to find the right man. Laurey Williams must choose between the flirtatious and charming cowboy Curly McLain and the steady and reliable (but creepy and menacing) Jud Fry. And though her friend, Ado Annie Carnes, likes any guy who will “talk purty” to her, it has come down to the traveling peddler, Ali Hakim, or the dim but talented cowboy, Will Parker. While the right choices may seem obvious, the cowboys seem to do their best to drive their girls to their rivals every chance they get. Meanwhile, the backdrop is the Oklahoma territory settlers striving to establish a community and become a state, with rivalries between the farmers and the cowboy ranchers over land management...and lots of great song and dance.
The show opens with Ryan Vasquez as Curly singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” followed by “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” two great songs that set the tone of the show. Vasquez has a great tenor voice and commanding presence as he kids with Aunt Eller, played by Jennifer Allen, and Laurey Williams, played by Emilie Kouatchou. Curly’s attempt to woo Laurey to go to the box social with him is one of the most frustrating flirtations in musical history, but then if it worked out the way it should, the show would be pretty much wrapped up in the first scene.
Soon after, Will Parker arrives and sings “(Everything's Up To Date In) Kansas City,” which features some of Hammerstein’s clever lyrics about Will’s first trip to the big city (You can walk to privies in the rain and never wet your feet!…) along with some fun dancing, and even a rope trick. Pierce Cassedy plays Will, the optimistic simpleton working his way into and out of Ado Annie’s heart. We meet Annie, played by Brit West, with her signature song “I Cain't Say No,” and West shows the right level of sass and enthusiasm as a young lady excited by romance and getting a man who will give her all his attention, and she has a great voice and compelling stage presence as well.
Since the time I first saw the film version of Oklahoma!, with Eddie Albert—one of the “whitest” actors out there—playing Ali Hakim, an itinerant peddler from Persia, I thought it was the most insane casting call ever made. His accent sounds like a mix of stereotypical Italian mixed with a bit of Mexican and French. But then I finally got it—Ali Hakim is a con man, from his peddler’s wares to his made-up name, probably a city slicker from New York or Chicago who barely knows where Persia is, trying to put one over on the rubes out west. In this production, Jeff Skowron plays Ali, and he does a much better job looking like a man who could be from across the seven seas, but he maintains that attitude of someone from the Bronx rather than anywhere near the Middle East. Together with Ado Annie and Will in their crazy love triangle, they form the comedic heart of the show, and in the group of songs they cover—“Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” and “All er Nuthin’,” they form a mini comic opera within the bigger story that would be worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, and by the end of the show, the clever Ali has met his match, many times over.
Emilie Kouatchou’s Laurey gets her first song with “Many A New Day,” along with the girls in the cast, and shows of her lovely soprano voice, which really soars when next paired with Curly in the song “People Will Say We're In Love,” another clever Hammerstein lyric with memorable rhymes like “Grantin’ your wish, I carved our inish, – als on that tree…” Despite the words protesting the idea that they may be seen as a couple, their delivery leaves no doubt that the two really are in love.
The next song is the polar opposite, as Curly pairs with his rival Jud Fry, played by John Rapson. Their duet in “Pore Jud Is Daid” is both beautiful and sinister as we are taken into the smokehouse—Jud’s lair. The idea of singing a beautifully harmonized duet about one of them being dead from suicide is a strange concept, another odd idea that somehow works in the story, and Vasquez and Rapson bring it off well, forming the dark center of the story. Jud continues in his less known soliloquy “Lonely Room,” a song left out of the film version, which cements his feelings of frustration and need for revenge.
In the film version, the famous “Dream Ballet” sequence in the middle of the show has a tendency to bring the whole story to a halt, going on for a long time without adding much to the story. But on stage it really becomes a highlight, an effective way to show how Laurey has become frightened of Jud and realizes her feelings for Curly. The “Dream” dancers—Conrad Sager as Curly, Taeler Cyrus as Laurey, Stephen Hanna as Jud, and the company dancers, the scene is choreographed by director Linda Goodrich and presents a beautiful and artistic ballet, especially enjoyable in the small in-the-round stage of the Music Circus. The audience gets every angle of the swirling dresses and athletic but graceful moves. It becomes an emotionally moving center to the show as the first act closes.
The Second act is just as fun as the first, and opens up showcasing the characters of old coot Andrew Carnes, played by Music Circus perennial, the gruff but lovable Ron Wisniski, and mother figure to all, Aunt Eller, played by Jennifer Allen, leading the whole cast in the humorous “The Farmer And The Cowman,” another great song and dance featuring the whole talented company. And though the intimate in-the-round stage works very well for numbers like this, giving the whole audience a close-to-the-action experience, you do lose some of Oklahoma’s feeling of the big open fields and glorious big sky so integral to the film and traditional stage presentations. And some of the action, like Laurey’s perilous ride with Jud, have to be eliminated entirely, so the scene where Curly sells his saddle, horse, and gun just to outbid Jud for Laurey’s box lunch don’t make a lot of sense since she hasn’t been in any real danger from him yet. But the payback comes in songs like the title number “Oklahoma,” with the cast rotating on the stage for all to see up close and personal.
Oklahoma! opened at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion on June 24 to a very appreciative audience, who thanked the cast with a standing ovation, and runs through Sunday, June 30. The show is great fun for all ages, and for young people, a perfect introduction to classic American musical theatre. For more information and tickets, see www.BroadwaySacramento.com. Broadway at Music Circus continues the 2019 summer season with The Drowsy Chaperone, opening July 9.
Ken Kiunke, 6/26/19
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing,com Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Emilie Kaoutchou and Ryan Vasquez play the starry-eyed lovers in Oklahoma!