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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 29, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Tommy Rivera-Vega is just one of the many characters in the Skylight's production of "In the Heights." (PHOTO: FroPhoto)

Skylight's "In the Heights" a joyous dance of hope


The word "barrio" conjures up all kinds of images, depending largely on your ethnicity and your experience. But an amazing picture of a barrio as a place of joy, hope, fear and dreams is what you see in the Tony Award winning musical "In the Heights," which opened Friday night at Skylight Music Theatre.

The world of theater is largely a world of white men, the majority who write, produce, direct and act in plays. While the theater world tries to encourage the work and provide opportunities for people of color – a group of people who have been locked out for decades – their stories and voices still often go unheard.

It's understandable when a minority playwright hits the stage that we, audiences and critics alike, will attempt to bend over backwards to be a little charitable.

There is no need for any breaks to be given to this production. Nobody needs to bend over backwards to help move this play by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes to the front of the line.

The production is a stirring story about the people who live in Washington Heights, a Latino neighborhood just a stone's throw from Harlem on the island of Manhattan.

Make no mistake about it, the main character in this play is not any one of the wonderfully talented Latino actors on this stage. The main character here is a neighborhood, a vibrant and loving place where courage and exuberance live side by side with reverence and fear of the uncertain.

The play features a cast searching for love, respect or peace. They are all individuals, but they are bound to each other by geography, history and care. It's a remarkable demonstration of how to survive and flourish as long as you never have to stand alone.

There are several story lines in this play. Nina, the daughter of a car service operator, had a scholarship to Stanford. Working and culture shock, however, combined to lose the scholarship, and she has returned to the barrio afraid to tell her parents what has happened. Her father is crushed and wonders how in the world he can make this right.

There are stories of searching for love and moving on in life. Another character, Usnavi – played wonderfully by Tommy Rivera-Vega – acts as both the main character and the narrator of this joyous drama. There are moments that are full of lusty humor and others that are quiet with a sad sense of loss. Tears were not an uncommon sight Friday night.

Two Milwaukee actors were absolutely magical in this production.

Rana Roman plays Nina and adds depth to this young woman caught between the outside world and her own, as well as between a man she loves and her father, whom she both loves and honors. Her voice is pure and sure, and she nailed the emotional center of Nina.

David Flores is the other Milwaukee actor who had the richest and most tender moment of the play. I have seen Flores in dozens of productions, and I have never seen him this magnificent.

He plays Kevin, Nina's father. And after she has just told him of her failure, her lost scholarship and the end to her dream, Flores stands in a single spotlight and sings the lament of every parent who wants the very best for his or her child. He talks of how he used to meet her on the balcony of their apartment when all the other kids were playing in the street.

"I'm proud to be your father,
'Cuz you work so much harder
And you are so much smarter
Than I was at your age.
And I always knew that she
Would fly away.
That she was gonna change
The world someday.

I will not be the reason
That my family can't succeed
I will do what it takes,
They'll have everything they need
Or all my work, all my life
Everything I've sacrificed will
Have been useless."

That sense of uselessness is the fearsome moment that every parent dreads. Flores captures it perfectly.

Claudia Sol Morgan took this core of singers and dancers, and created a vibrant choreography that made the stage come alive with passion and a startling fierceness.

Jeff Schaetzke, another Milwaukeean, was the music director and kept the pulse pounding line on track. The music captured everything that bespoke the life in the barrio. It was full of joy and wonder, and had the audience bobbing their heads almost from the very first moment.

"In the Heights" runs through February 23. Information and tickets are available at www.skylightmusictheatre.org.


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