Sunday, September 4, 2011

'In the Heights': Soaring and Finding Home

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It seems the teleserye, perhaps the most popular form of television in the country, has transported itself to the stage and morphed into a song-and-dance cycle. But in place of the generic, love-crazed tunes that permeate the air waves every ten minutes or so, its theatrical counterpart makes use of a pastiche that’s half rap and half recognizably Latin. And when there’s a giant crowd whose primary role on television is to provide comedic noise and spectatorship, dancing ensues.

The name of this latest innovative serial drama? "In the Heights," the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical currently playing the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium until September 18. For while, at first glance, it may be all Broadway down to the core, the similarities it bears with those evening primetime television soaps aren’t so obscure at all. The deeply speculative Filipino might even venture further and say that a decade ago, as Lin-Manuel Miranda was still working on this brainchild of his, he already envisioned its arrival on Philippine shores (and now it has, as Atlantis Productions’ third offering of the year).

For starters, there’s the plot, which, since the musical opened on the Great White Way three years ago, has been criticized as ‘oversimplified’ and ‘mechanical’, with The New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood describing it as ‘a series of vignettes that form a… somewhat airbrushed mural of life’. Briefly, one can even state it as such: In three days, a close-knit Latino community in Washington Heights, New York City dream, contend with life, explore love, quarrel, party, and make decisions. Oh, and how dramatic can you get when one of the main plot twists involves someone winning a $96,000 lottery ticket, right?

The characters themselves seem to have been plucked straight out of a box of stereotypes. Usnavi, the bodega owner who is also this show’s narrator, yearns to step foot on the Dominican Republic where his roots are; Vanessa, who works at the salon, dreams to have her own West Village studio despite personal financial constraints; Nina, the first from the community to go to college, comes home to tell her parents that she’s dropped out of school; Benny, who works for Nina’s parents’ taxi business, fights for forbidden love. And the list goes on.

Yet, as evidenced by what we saw last night (Sept. 3) in only this production’s second performance, it seems Director Bobby Garcia has found a means to skirt past ‘oversimplified’ and ‘mechanical’, and bring this musical closer to home simply by turning its ‘deficiencies’ into advantages. For an ‘airbrushed mural’ that "In the Heights" supposedly is, the verdict is quite clear: The material, as caricature as its elements may be, works here in the Philippines when it failed to impress those first-world critics.

And it’s easy to see why: To borrow from the layperson’s words, Filipinos can very well ‘relate’ to this musical. These stories of dreaming and contending with change – they are our stories, or those of the people close to us. The collective gasp from the audience as the lottery plot element unfolded is telling of our familiarity to all that. Safe to say, as long as they remain at the Romulo Auditorium, Usnavi and his neighbors cease to be just two-dimensional sketches; they become our real-life siblings, parents, cousins, classmates, teachers, officemates, household helpers – practically someone we know.

Now for "In the Heights" to succeed as a production? You definitely need someone who can rap the part out of Usnavi, first. Then, a couple of big voices who can exude the chemistry that Benny and Nina should have. Then a cast that can sing really well, dance really well, act like they’re Latinos, and speak like they’re Latinos. And so on. But for those three criteria alone, Garcia and his team got it all right.

Usnavi here is played by Nyoy Volante – and he is perhaps the most believable (if not perfect) choice there is around. He raps the part with flawless diction, but who knew he could flesh the character out of him like some tangible twin? Without a good Usnavi, "In the Heights" would be anything but, and with the natural stature and a peculiar vibrancy in his acting, Volante does a huge job in keeping the show afloat. “Everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream,” Volante raps in the titular opening song, and indeed, he does his job exceptionally well.

And of that pair of star-crossed lovers, an equally satisfying job has as well been done to paint a bittersweet portrait of two people separated by time and an ocean of a country (literally). Felix Rivera (an unquestionably heaven-sent tenor) adds another lead romancer to his resume as Benny – only this time, he also has to dance (and he does, quite well) and do what can only be described as ‘rap-singing’ (as he does in "When You’re Home"). And when he and K-La Rivera (Nina) hop onto that balcony to open Act II, the chemistry between them just oozes to several floors below.

The problem – or the possibility of it – comes only when boy leaves girl to croon on her own. K-La Rivera has a voice that shows lots of potential for theatre with more training, but in her professional stage debut, her lack of theatricality is quite glaring (especially in her Act I solo "Breathe," though radiantly sung). Given enough time, however, this fixable glitch will hopefully be resolved for this promising performer. In total contrast, Bibo Reyes, also in his professional theatre debut, delivers a hilarious breakthrough performance as Usnavi’s sidekick-slash-cousin Sonny.

The rest of the supporting cast are testaments to experience being a necessary mold for a brilliant performer. Ima Castro, fresh from her stellar comeback turn as the title character in "Aida," tackles the triple threat part of Vanessa with as much flame and gusto as can only be seen among those leading ladies. Tex Ordoñez (Daniela), perhaps our biggest personal revelation of the night, is at once austere, delightfully sassy, and explosively funny. Jay Glorioso (a rather subdued Madame Armfeldt in last year’s "A Little Night Music") sings and acts her Abuela Claudia with all vivacity and nuance to what is definitely another career high. And of Nina’s parents, Calvin Millado (Kevin) sings an especially soul-gripping "Inutil," while Jackie Lou Blanco (Camila) makes up for a vocally weak performance with a gem of an acting job.

Together with an ensemble whose main role, it seems, is to suavely dance through every group number in both acts, this cast is as theatrical as anyone can ask for. Add to that Mio Infante’s scenic design (yet again, the man outdoes himself), Jay Aranda’s lighting design (lighting as emotional adjunct in "96,000"), and Cecile Martinez’s choreography ("Blackout" was an electrifying Act I ender) – all three excellently surpassing the otherwise physical limitations of the stage – and we get one of the year’s finest productions to date.

When Benny tells Nina in song that “the streets are a little kinder when you’re home,” he could very well have been alluding to the musical itself. Not that "In the Heights" never once strolled down a warm street on Broadway (though it did close after only a little less than three years, while "Wicked," "Jersey Boys," and "The Lion King" continue to do their thing). But here in the country, where sari-sari stores abound and carnaval del barrios are a yearly thing, this theatrical teleserye is a welcome treat. And when Usnavi ends the show, saying, “I’m home,” it's as well this musical finding home, if only a transient one, for itself.

Nyoy Volante (center) and the cast of In the Heights.

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