Zach’s ‘In the Heights’ is a lively, sizzling start to the summer season

Thanks the world phenomenon that was Hamilton, and an Oscar nomination for his work on Disney’s Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has quickly become a household name, but before he was treading the boards as a founding father or singing for the president, he was winning over musicals fans with his vibrant, joyous look at life in the one of the most colorful parts of Manhattan with In the Heights. Zach Theatre is now bringing this hit musical to Austin, with a production that would make Miranda proud, full of fire, passion, and the sweltering heat of the New York summer.

In the Heights follows the lives of those living in New York’s Washington Heights during one of the hottest parts of the summer. We’re first introduced to Bodega owner Usnavi, through whom we meet the myriad figures that call the Heights home, and who take us through one special sweltering New York summer, complete with blackouts, heartbreak, and even violence, but always with the latinx flair this neighborhood is known for. Zach has brought in the big guns to bring their work to life, led by director Michael Balderamma, who cut his teeth as dance captain and original cast member of the original Off-Broadway production, and who has numerous other Broadway hits to his name. He is currently the choreographer for the Chicago production of Hamilton, so having his hand guiding all the action of Zach’s In the Heights is a big win. Helping him along the way is musical director, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Allen Robertson, a mainstay of the Austin musical scene, and a well respected composer and producer in his own right. These two icons come together with a talented team to create a lively, powerful night of theatrical thrills.

The Washington Heights of Miranda’s In the Heights bursts with energy, full of snappy music and quick choreography, and Balderamma and company do their part to keep the action moving. His actors, and even sets, are in contact motion, never hitting a false step, and with blasts of trumpets and the toe-tapping beat of Latin percussion, the skilled orchestra works to keep the scene hopping. The cast do their part to keep the action moving as well, performing with a vibrant zeal that truly adds a soul and spirit to their lively neighborhood. Add it all up with the sunny lighting and the inspired costume choices, and you have one of the hottest shows Zach’s produced in years.

In addition to bringing in some big guns behind the scenes, Zach has called in talent from around the country to fill out its cast. In particular, Alicia Taylor Tomasko shows the skills that made her a New York theatre regular. Here she plays the lovely but harried Vanessa, a woman trying to make her way out of the heights, while always being pulled in by the culture and people of Heights.  It also doesn’t help that she has caught the eye of our protagonist, Usnavi. She’s a woman divided, and Tomasko plays the necessary combination of sassy and strong with aplomb. Her footwork is on point, showing off moves that I’ve rarely seen the likes of on Austin stages, and her voice is clear and strong, with plenty of passion and fire. A good Vanessa is essential to a good production of In the Heights, and the role is in good hands with Tomasko.

Taking on a role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda is no mean feat, so Chicago Theatre native Keith Contreras-McDonald had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to his charm and goofiness, he becomes almost instantly endearing. The musical doesn’t give him the standout musical moments of some of his fellow performers, but he carries the piece thanks to his wonderful acting chops. His chemistry with Sarro’s Vanessa is always believable, and, in fact, his relationships with all of the cast is solid throughout. He’s at his best in the small, more emotion-laden moments, helping to sell the stakes and bring the tears in some of the play’s more sombre sequences.

Though the team behind Zach’s In the Heights have brought in several big talents to inhabit their characters, one of the play’s true delights is seeing how many talented locals fill out the cast. For instance, this critic has enjoyed watching actor Vincent Hooper make his way from background player in Summer Stock performances, to the starring on the big stages of Zach Theatre, and here he takes center stage, never feeling out of place among the more seasoned talent.  Indeed, his performance as Benny is one of the most emotionally honest in the piece, as he takes us on one of the most full character arcs in the piece. Whether bringing humor or pathos, Hooper proves himself a capable performer, and is living proof that Austin talent can stand toe-to-toe with the that of New York or Chicago.

A pleasant surprise came from another local performer, and California transplant, Christina Oeschger, who wows from her first notes, showcasing a voice like polished glass: smooth, clear, and full brilliance. She brings out the intelligence of her character,  a bright young girl having trouble facing the world outside Washington Heights, and sells this from her very stance and diction. This is combined with an innocence in her eyes that charms the audience quickly, which is only amplified once she belts her first note, putting her stunning voice on full display. It’s easy to see that there’s a bright future in front of Oeschger, and one hopes she finds herself on other Austin stages again soon.

With a clear vision and exuberant passion, Zach plunges audiences headfirst into the wild world of Washington Heights, given some real gravitas thanks to a game production team and an indefatigable group of talented young actors from around the country. It’s the perfect kind of crowd-pleasing entertainment that makes for a splendid intro to the summer season, that will have you humming the tunes the whole ride home.

In the Heights is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through July 2nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Zach’s website at zachtheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck.

‘The Revolutionists’ is a funny, but ferocious, feminist fable

Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and Marianne Angelle meet in the salon of celebrated feminist writer Olympe de Gouges, each of them wanting some piece of writing that will change, or perhaps, end their lives. This is the story behind Lauren Gunderson’s original and bold new play, The Revolutionists, given an all-too relevant production by the talented minds of Shrewd Productions, led by the incredibly skilled hand of Rudy Ramirez. Following the final days of several of the French Revolution’s strongest women, we see how their fights and struggles are far too similar to the ones women are still fighting today.

One of the smartest moves Lauren Gunderson makes in The Revolutionists is to take these famous historical women, and present them with all of their insecurities, foibles, doubts and emotions. She turns them from figureheads of the revolution, into, simply, women. These people were no different than you and I, and yet, they had the resolve to change the world. As we live in a world today where smart, powerful women are often chastised or ridiculed, if for no other reason than being female, it’s inspiring to see these strong women fighting the fight, despite knowing, in many cases, it will mean a meeting with Madame Guillotine.

Taking on the multi-dimensional qualities of these women is no small feet, so these four performers have a lot on their shoulders. Luckily, the four women chosen bring in a combination of charisma, comedic timing, and emotional honesty that truly helps to breathe life into these historical figures. Each of these famous women, in their own way, did their part to define the revolution, and the quadriptych these actors create is a fine piece to behold.

At the heart of the piece is the friendship between playwright Olympe De Gouges, one of the only feminist writers in Revolutionary-era France, and Marianne Angelle, one of the era’s most famous Haitian freedom fighters. Having lived through a slave rebellion on a foreign shore, Angelle is a character who has gone through Hell, and Valoneecia Tolbert plays this through a sense of sardonic guardedness. She’s a serious, tough woman, who doesn’t take guff from anyone, a trait which beats perfectly against de Gouges’ manic sarcasm. It’s be far too easy to paint Angelle as simply a hard-as-nails revolutionary, but the play smartly gives Angelle moments of real heart, which Tolbert truly makes sing.

Sarah Marie Curry’s Olympe de Gouges is a staunch feminists, a warrior for the rights of women and slaves, but she’s also a bundle of insecurities. Curry, utilizing her fantastic comedic skill, plays up Olympe’s sarcastic attitude, bringing some of the funniest moments of the piece as she bounces off the play’s bizarre cast of character. It’s obvious, however, that under all the self-deprecating humor, there’s plenty of sensitivity and doubt. Her final moments are heartbreaking, and these moments hit so hard, in no small part, because of the journey Curry takes us on, bringing us into the heart of the character with her multifaceted turn.

Making up the final pieces of this fine feminist puzzle are two actors who may not spend as much time on stage, but who make the most of each moment. Gricelda Silva has an amazing ability to elicit emotion from the smallest of movements, so it’s no surprise that when she lets loose as Charlotte Corday, her energy bursts all throughout the theatre. She’s perfectly cast as the adorable young assassin, her small stature and precocious personality hiding the maliciousness underneath it all. There’s a quirky naivete she brings to the role that fits splendidly with Corday, as, even in her final moments, she shows undeniable spunk and fire. Shannon Grounds also brings plenty of energy to her performance as Marie Antoinette, but hers is more grounded in the ditzy cluelessness of the ruined princess. In many plays, a character like this would be played exclusively as a clown, but Gunderson recognizes that Antoinette was so much more: a mother, a lover, and a grieving wife. Indeed, one of the play’s most heartbreaking moments stems from Marie finding common ground with another character, who finds herself a sudden widow, where Marie says the simple, but tear-inducing words “it’s never going to be all right…but sometimes it feels good to hear someone say it.” Grounds finds the complexity beneath Marie’s goofiness, creating, by the end, one of the play’s most endearing characters.

Despite the action of the play being several centuries removed from our own, it couldn’t be more relevant to the world today.  As Olympe de Gouges stands before a gathering throng of men near the play’s midpoint, asking for equality for women, we’re reminded of the marches and meetings today fighting for those same rights, drowned out once again by the gathering mass of male ego and fragility. It’s just one of the many elements that make “The Revolutionists” such a strong feminist statement, a statement that deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible.

Shrewd Productions’ The Revolutionists is playing at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture through June 25th. To find more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Shrew Productions’ website at shrewdproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Errich Petersen.

Clever direction and a sharp script make for a wild ride in Capital T’s ‘The Effect’

If chemicals can alter our emotions, how do we know if the things we feel are actually real? This is the question in the heart of  Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect”, the latest from stalwarts Capital T Theatre, whose string of effective, relevant plays continues, this time with the help of one of Austin’s most original directors, and recent Austin Critics Table Award winner, Lily Wolff.

“The Effect” takes us into a research facility, in a near-future that could begin anytime now, or could be happening right now, under our own noses. Here, two young people are testing out a new anti-depressant that may have some strange side effects, side effects that could change their lives for the better, or the worse. Humor, passion, anger, violence, all dance in a vigorous tango to create a wild ride, but with firm hands on the reins, and a set of skilled actors at its center, its a ride that’s exhilarating to experience.

One of director Lily Wolff’s strongest talents lies in her ability to create dynamic situations from simple materials. Though her work in “The Effect” may not quite reach the heights of originality evident when she turned a stairwell into an arena, or a blackbox into a magical forest, as she did in her stunning production of “As You Like It”, she still transport us through space and time effortlessly here. Utilizing little more than a white backdrop and two beds, she creates everything from a testing facility, to an abandoned asylum, to a convention stage, making each scene believable along the way. She’s aided greatly in this by Austin’s king of projection design, Lowell Bartholomee, who’s modern, but subtle work helps to add to the near-future aesthetic, while never seeming too overwhelming. It’s all built upon nicely by Patrick Anthony’s lighting, whose nuanced use of cookies and gels creates intriguing landscapes, while never straying too far from the reality of the situation.

There’s something in the marriage of Prebble’s fluid writing and Rebecca Robinson’s casual delivery that makes every scene she’s in pop, which, in the process, creates one of Robinson’s best performances. Robinson has always had a unique skill in connecting to the emotional truth of a piece, and here, the wavelengths meet at a near perfect level, as character and performer mesh into one from her earliest scenes. Her movements flow naturally, her interactions with the other characters move effortlessly, and as the play explores her character in more depth, Robinson finds new ways to add dimension to her acting. It all seems so simple as we watch it on stage, but it takes a major talent to create such natural delivery.

“Energetic” is one of the those common phrases you hear bandied about to describe performances, but one actor who embodies the very concept of “energy” is Delante G. Keys in his performance as Tristan. He’s lively, bubbly, and incredibly expressive (especially in his face), but the energy he brings is something more than just exuberance. What’s really fascinating to watch is how he uses this energy in his darker moments, when he turns it to explosive anger and violence. Keys’ is not a prismatic energy, flying off into all directions, but instead a honed energy, that Keys utilizes with laser precision. His anger, his humor, his passion, is direct, precise, utilized in the most effective ways to make each scene sing. He creates some of the funniest moments in the play, but also some of the most heartbreaking, and even some of the hardest to watch. Tristan is a character who experiences his emotions in a very big way, and its a testament to Keys’ ability that he can play this hugeness with earnestness and verisimilitude.

Clever direction, a sharp script, and a game cast come together create a piece that’s in equal turns powerful, emotional, and humorous. The actors give measured, but strong performances throughout, creating undeniable chemistry with each other, molded under the strong guiding hands of Wolff, who here continues to climb the ranks of Austin directors. Capital T has a winning streak going back several years at this point, and if they have more like “The Effect” in the barrel, I don’t see that streak ending anytime soon.

“The Effect” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through June 17th. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit capitalt.org.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre.

Humor and spectacle take center stage in Broadway Across America’s ‘Something Rotten’

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a true musical comedy on stage. Sure, there’s plenty of satire, plenty of serious musicals with funny moments, but the true goofy, ribald, laugh-em-ups are a dying breed. Luckily, Something Rotten! provides just the laughs you’re looking for, with a comical look at 1590s England, and two men making a musical about eggs. It’s grand spectacle, featuring a skilled cast and some toe-tapping tunes, that, while never exploring major themes, also never takes itself too seriously.

As Something Rotten! begins, we’re transported to Renaissance England, where several playwrights of the era are doing their best work, but none more so than the talk of town, William Shakespeare. The bard’s shadow looms large over all these writers, and our play follows two of them, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who have the talent and gumption, just never the opportunity to create the next big thing. To find the way to one-up Shakespeare, they enlist the help of a wacky sooth-Sayer named Thomas Nostradamus (who declares he “has just as much talent as his famous uncle”), to discover the next big thing in theatre. What they discover is the strange form of art known as “The Musical”, and from there we’re taken on a wild ride through the history of musical history, in a daffy downward spiral through songs about the Black Death and eggs, all culminating in a climactic production of “Omelet: The Musical!”.

Something Rotten! truly excels with its sense of spectacle. Though at first the play keeps things simple, with quick wit, humor, and goofy pratfalls, but by the time we reach the show-stopping number “A Musical”, a wild ride through the history of musical theatre, things ramp to eleven, and we’re presented with everything from tap dance to chorus lines to elaborate set changes. This is taken to an even higher level as the show reaches is climax, the absolutely jaw-dropping titular song, which gives us even more references to famous musicals, as well as dancing eggs, cowboys, chimney sweeps, and even an actual recipe for omelets. The energy is kept at high throughout, keeping the audience enthralled through the final ovation.

In the play’s early stages, we see Rob McClure’s Nick Bottom as a lovable jerk, with his skill for humor on full display, but it’s not until the play reached the latter parts of the first act that we truly get to see the talents that made this man a Tony award nominee. When he’s allowed to let loose his skills, we find him an incredible tap dancer, a skilled vocalist, and hilarious physical actor, showing him to be a true Renaissance man. The choreography throughout is on point, but McClure’s skills cannot be denied, pulling off intricate sequences that most comedic actors wouldn’t even attempt. His over-the-top personality fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast, making him the perfect foil to his John Grisetti’s softer, more romantic Nigel Bottom, and the perfect companion to the lovably energetic performance by Maggie Lakis as Bea.

We cannot, of course, talk about this production of Something Rotten! without mentioning the star at its center. It was a smart choice to cast a marquee name such as Adam Pascale, a well-known name throughout the world thanks to his performance as Roger in most original productions of “Rent”, as the bigger-than-life William Shakespeare. His chops are on full display here, with his singing and dancing second-to-none, but what truly surprises here is his talent for humor. The character he plays is so haughty and grandiose that it requires that the actor give their 200%  to it just to make it believable, and Pascal is more than up to the task. He pushes so much energy into his performance at Shakespeare that he bursts at the seams with it, each gesture and phrasing eliciting torrents of giggles throughout the theatre, and when he takes on a disguise to infiltrate the Bottom Brothers’ production, things only get more fun. It’s a well measured performance, that fits perfectly within the loom of the show to create a colorful piece of the rich tapestry that is Something Rotten!

With so many big names and personalities taking center stage in Something Rotten!, we mustn’t forget the fine work being done by its supporting cast. In particular, Blake Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus, the nephew of the real Nostradamus, whose talent for broad humor cannot be understated. He arrives on the scene with the amazing number “A Musical”, and brings major laughs with every future appearance, whether it be from his slapstick physicality, or from his frequent non-sequiturs on musical history. Also pulling out nice work is Jeff Brooks as Shylock, who wants to be remembered by Shakespeare as “the really nice Jew”, and who brings an equal sense of sarcasm and sweetness that we don’t find in many places in the piece, making his appearance in his handfuls of scenes a delight. We should also take a moment to appreciate the work being pulled off by Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea, who wows with her first number “Right Hand Man”, and only gets better from there, as she dons male disguises in order to get work in the male-dominated culture in which she lived, creating many comical situations.

There’s nothing especially deep or meaningful in Something Rotten!, and that’s okay. There’s space in every diet for a little fluff and sweetness, and Something Rotten! is that big piece of chocolate cake. A laugh riot, this goofy, shiny, and highly entertaining journey into a wildly inaccurate Elizabethan England brings a talented cast together to care a fine slice of sweet, sweet theatrical pleasure.