South Bend Civic Hits The ‘Heights’

I have to begin by saying that this is the kind of review I really don’t like to write.

For two reasons, probably not the ones you think.

Residents of Washington Heights enjoy an evening of dancing in the South Bend Civic Theater production of IN THE HEIGHTS. (Photos by Lauren Mow)

The first is because the subject, South Bend Civic Theatre’s current show, “In The Heights,” which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium, is  its best musical production to date.

The second is because, in spite of performances added to its scheduled run, as of this weekend all are completely sold out. So if you were holding back to see if your friends liked the show, you are too late for that to make any difference.

Difficult to say what makes an amateur production come together as solidly as this.

Obviously the foundation is the script and score. The former is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show earned four Tony Awards in 2008 including Best Musical.

That does not, however, guarantee a successful production.

So begin with a director, Leah Isabel Tirado (who also plays the pivotal role of Abuela Claudia), an associate director Paul Mow and a choreographer, Jon Martinez, all of whom have extensive backgrounds in professional theater, and you have a great structure on which to build.

Its a celebration in Washington Heights in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of IN THE HEIGHTS.

The “building blocks” they selected to inhabit the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights obviously are top quality. There is not a weak or off-putting voice among the principle players. Jorge Rivera-Herrans is Usnavi, bodega owner who dreams of opening a bar in his native Dominican Republic and Rachel Thomas is Vanessa, who hopes to have her own apartment in the West Village but whose alcoholic mother drinks up all she earns in the beauty shop owned by Daniela (Andrea Deleon) who must move her shop due to increased rent.

 

Nina (Mimi Bell) has dropped out of Stanford and come home which upsets her parents Kevin (Jeffrey Villlorio Santos) and Camilla (Shay Northstine) who are determined to pay for her return to school no matter the cost. They disapprove of her romance with Benny (Samuel Jackson) who works for Kevin in his taxi service.

Around this core, all of whom strongly inhabit their roles vocally, physically and dramatically, are other relatives and friends who work and live in the Heights.

Its morning in Washington Heights and residents begin their day in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of IN THE HEIGHTS.

The show spans three days during which major changes occur, not the least of which is a $96,000 lottery ticket won by the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, impressively played and sung byTirado.

From the beginning of a swelteringly hot July 3 through the final realizations on July 5, this block in the Heights is in perpetual motion, blending hip-hop, salsa, soul and Hispanic rhythms that defy audience members to stay still, with ballads that go straight to the heart.

Whether explosive ensemble numbers like the Act 1 fireworks finale and the neighborhood carnival or the introspective solos and duets, the pacing (along with the excellent voices) keeps everyone in tune with the characters.

Principle or ensemble, the 29 company members mark the highs and lows of life in a Latino community with contagious reality.

Kyle Chamberlin’s set design instantly creates the atmosphere of the block, including a view of the bridge, and Matt Dolphy Clark’s lighting design (with fireworks) enhances the feeling of hot summer, day and night.

Roy Bronkema is music director/pianist and Joshua Goines is orchestra conductor/pianist. With six instrumentalists, they happily bridge the gap of playing on both sides of the “street..

Vocally and instrumentally, this production is enhanced by the theater’s new sound system.

“In The Heights,” which most know was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s one before ”Hamilton,” celebrates the uniqueness of the individual and the solidarity of the community in a life-affirming package applicable to everyone everywhere!

IN THE HEIGHTS plays in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium through March 25. All performances are sold out, To add your name to the extensive waiting list, call (574) 234-1112 weekdays.

 

 

Musical ‘Comedy’ Mixes Murder/Laughter

A serial killer and a New York City detective, both with crippling ”mommy” issues, cross paths in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “No Way to Treat A Lady.”

Detective Morris Brummel (Zachary Rivers, right) gets a call from a killer (Brent Graber, left) during astressful visit with his mother in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. (Photos by Mel Moore)

Based on a 1964 novel by author/screenwriter William Goldman (“The Princess Bride,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All The President’s Men”), it became a 1968 film starring Rod Steiger and, almost 20 years later, a “musical comedy thriller” with book, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen.

Be advised. This is not your high-stepping, big cast musical.

True, there are almost a dozen characters but they are played by a cast of five who manage to fill the stage as this definitely “black comedy” progresses.

It opens with a deceptively sweet scene as Father Barry Fitzgerald (sound familiar?) pays a call on Mrs. Sullivan, an elderly, recently-widowed parishioner.

But wait. Father Fitzgerald (1940s movie fans will get the reference) is really Christopher “Kit” Gill (Brent Graber), a mediocre actor determined to match the fame of his recently deceased mother, Alexandra Gill (Annette Kaczanowski), with a notice in The New York Times, achieved by any means necessary.

dancer
Christopher “Kit” Gill romances his second victim in Spanish dancer Carmella Tucci (Annette Kaczanowski) in heElkhartCivic Thetre production of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Sullivan (also played by Ms. Kaczanowski) this means joining her husband, ready or not, with a post-mortem lipstick kiss drawn on her forehead

The homicide case is assigned to Detective Morris Brummell (Zachary Rivers) ,who still lives with his mother Flora (Julie Herrli Castello), definitely a less-than-supportive parent. In the course of his investigation, Morris meets Sarah Stone (Michelle Miller), a tenant in the victim’s building, and immediately falls in love.

Meanwhile Kit, unhappy that his crime has not made The Times, contacts the detective and draws him into his murderous plot, proceeding to up his game via his next victim, Spanish dancer Carmella Tucci (Ms. Kaczanowski again), who has just lost her partner. This time, Kit is disguised as an Arthur Murray (the ‘40s again!) dance instructor. Their tango ends with a deadly kiss.

The homicidal wave continues until ….but no more spoilers here. Enough to say that Ms. Kaczanowski has still one last character to create and Morris has to get his priorities straight.

The score contains some lovely melodies, several with a definitely macabre flavor. Kaczanowski deserves major applause for her swift and definitive segues from character to character, attitudes and accents well in hand. Rivers is properly frustrated, balancing love and duty while struggling to overcome the insecurity developed through years of smothering “mother love.” He and Miller display the show’s best voices and she creates a warmly stubborn young woman who never loses I\sight of her objective.

Detective Morris Brummell (Zachary Rivers) takes his girlfriend Sarah Stone (Michele Miller) on a picnic in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

Castello is constantly shrill, making Morris’ desire to get out instantly understandable. As the increasingly frustrated actor/killer, Graber’s desire to one-up his late mother is exacerbated by her scathing remark “Whether you’re a successful killer or an unsuccessful actor, you still can’t get arrested in this town.” His rising anger is the through-line of the story and he handles it well.

The production is directed by John Shoup assisted by Penny Shoup, with vocal direction by Kim Dooley and choreography by Jackiejo Brewers. Keyboardist Miriam Houck is music director with keyboardist Brenda Summers, clarinetist Grace Johnson and percussionist Mark Swendsen.

Director Shoup designed the flexible set which features a portrait of Alexandra by Jeff Barrack and integrated slide designs by Sandy and Brian MacGowan indicating locations in 1970 Manhattan. A stage crew of NYPD’s finest makes quick work of the many scene changes.

NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY plays Friday through Sunday and March 16-17 in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 .