Sunday, March 3, 2013

Westchester theater's risk pays off

John Fanelli and his Standing Ovation Studios in Armonk, N.Y. have scored a huge hit with In the Heights at Westchester Broadway Theatre - a gritty, urban show that was thought to be a stretch for the suburban dinner venue. The musical is sold out for the original five-week run and has been extended to April 7.

Kudos to Fanelli for producing and directing the first local production since the show's 2008-2011 Broadway run and to WBT for varying their lineup of classic musicals (Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music) with a story set among the residents of Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, spun to the beats of salsa, hip-hop and pop.

In the Heights, with music, lyrics and concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, won four 2008 Tony awards, including Best Musical. WBT's cast includes members of the Broadway cast and the just-completed national tour.

In The Heights at Westchester Broadway Theatre
The winning Arielle Jacobs plays Nina, who has returned home with a lonely secret - she's dropped out of Stanford due to money woes. Perry Young (who is a dead ringer for Miranda) is the neighborhood's anchor -- good-natured bodega owner Usnavi who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.

Christina Aranda looks as if she is easily playing 40 years beyond her actual age as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's loving matriarch. Nicole Paloma Sarro and Benjamin Perez play Nina's parents, Camila and Kevin. Perez makes the most of "Inutil" ("Useless"), a song expressing a father's pain at feeling helpless when his daughter is in distress, and Sarro seeks to stop their arguing in "Enough."

Special mention must go to Westchester-trained FaTye, who plays Benny, an employee of Kevin's car service. As an African-American, Benny feels odd man out among the Latinos and FaTye skillfully negotiates his emotions from genial to resentful to loving suitor of Nina.

Nina's quandary over what to do about her college dreams is paralled by hairdresser Vanessa's desire to get out of the neighborhood and afford an apartment downtown. Gizel Jimenez dynamically expresses Vanessa's desperation and attraction to Usnavi.

Sparkling Latin dance numbers, originally choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and reproduced by Morgan Marcell, punctuate the characters' emotions. But for all of their desires to get out of the barrio, they realize that, as Camila sings, "When you have a problem, you come home."

Steve Loftus' set design, with the silhouette of the George Washington Bridge in the distance, beautifully evokes the street scene and Andrew Gmoser's lighting design creates attractive patterns and textures. However, the show's sound issues, which earlier reviews have mentioned, seem to continue as several patrons last night remarked that Usnavi's intricate rap lyrics were hard to hear.

Overall, the "In the Heights" adventure has been a success for WBT. Patrons Seth Segall and Sue Mirialakis, attending last night from White Plains, said it was their first visit to WBT. "We just recently started discovering local theater. I was not familiar with this show, but I'm interested in new theater," said Segall.

This story first appeared at