San Diego Musical Theatre Delivers an Amazing Production of In The Heights

With a Superb Cast and Ensemble Who Made The Musical Their Own 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

The Cast of San Diego Musical Theatre's Production of In The Heights. Photo Jill Townsend

It has been a while since a local theatre company in San Diego staged a production of In The Heights. An ambitious musical theatre project to produce due to Andy Blankenbuehler's high-level choreography, number of cast members, and ensemble. In the Heights is the musical that truly showcased Lin-Manuel Miranda's talents, (wayyy before Hamilton and Disney's Encanto) being responsible for the concept, music, and lyrics with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman. It had its first performance in 2005 and in 2008 won four Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography, and Best Original Score. One of the novelties here was to mix hip hop and Latin rhythms both in music and choreo, having as a result, a hot and spicy musical with amazing dance moves as well as a storyline revolving around only Latin American characters, a diverse cast and creative team.

The story takes place in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan with a high Latin American population also known as 'Little Dominican Republic'. Usnavi (Sebastian Montenegro) is the owner of the corner bodega and along with his younger, loudmouth cousin Sonny (Charlie Orozco) takes care of the coffee (café con leche), newspaper, and lottery needs of the neighborhood. That includes the Rosario's Kevin (Berto Fernández) and Camila (Daisy Martinez) who own a Taxi dispatch service and are parents to Nina (Vanessa Orozco) who has always been a star student and "the one who made it out" like the song Breathe says, she went to Standford to college but has dropped out due to economic issues, has not told her parents, and is back in New York. Benny (Jordan Markus) works as a dispatcher and always has had a crush on Nina but Kevin will not have it because he is not Latin American. The neighborhood salon where all the chisme happens is run by Daniela (Lena Ceja) and her employees Carla (Liliana Rodriguez) who is very innocent and Vanessa (Arianna Villa), Usnavi's (not so) secret crush and very frustrated with the lifestyle she leads, wanting to make more money and get out of the barrio. You cannot have your Latino neighborhood without everyone's abuelita. Abuela Claudia (Analía Romero) looks after everybody and took Usnavi under her wing when his parents died. There is also Graffiti Pete (Tommy Tran) who is a thug with a good heart that tags the neighborhood with his artistic creations and the Piragua guy (Ramiro Garcia Jr.) with his crushed ice cart filled with wonderful flavors. Nina walks around the barrio saying hello to everybody, crushes on Benny too, all hell breaks loose when she tells her parents that she dropped out AND is seeing Benny, Usnavi gets the courage to ask Vanessa out while the salon ladies get ready to move to the Bronx because the barrio is too expensive due to gentrification, the corner bodega sells a winning lottery ticket of $96,000 dollars and during a heat wave, someone passes away changing the course of a couple of characters.

Analía Romero is Abuela Claudia in SDMT's Production of In The Heights. Photo Jill Towsend

SDMT did an amazing job with a superb cast and ensemble. There is this thing in the regional theatre world all over the country where productions tend to hire talent from out of state, usually New York or Chicago with the excuse that "the fit is not there" which is a lie. So, another great aspect of this production is that they are focusing on young artists showcasing the up-and-coming talent in the region as well as other artists that we have not seen that often on stage or ever before. I mentioned it in the blogview regarding SDMT's previous production of Catch Me if You Can, the impressive work done regarding the stage design in the small space, is totally note-worthy. It happened with this production as well. Mathys Herbert's set design had everything finely set out: the balconies, the dispatch, the corner bodega, and the salon displaying the famous exes featured in all of Lin Manuel Miranda's musicals. The choreographer Laurie Muñiz had a tough task to pull as this is not an easy choreography to replicate and she did it marvelously and made it her own, adding her touches. There is a flamenco spark on there with a red fan and everything. Not Latin American but still, it was a nice touch.

Carlos Mendoza's direction is tight and the leads are strong with potent vocals and nailing down these now iconic roles. Sebastian Montenegro as Usnavi is great, charming, and funny. I appreciated his rap style where he takes his pace and you can make out all the words easily. Vanessa Orozco as Nina is a total sweetheart with an amazing voice, making a great duo and harmony with Jordan Markus who plays Benny. Orozco has a bachelor's in Biology and Spanish and she works as lab support. I find that to be fascinating...Lena Ceja as Daniela is definitely one of the strongest with an intense voice and range as well as comedic sass. Obviously, Berto Fernández as Kevin knocked the role right out of the park. The song "Inútil" where Kevin shares some family history with the audience and how he came to New York is full of feelings and is not an easy song to interpret. It is one of my favorites from this musical and Fernández did it perfectly. The Rosarios are a power couple, the actress playing Camila has to be up to par and  Daisy Martinez also nailed it. Sidenote, I was very offended when -spoiler alert- they killed off Camila for the motion picture. Such a strong character! Also with an amazing and strong song titled "Enough". Martinez delivers. All the talent in this production has an amazing voice, the salon ladies, Arianna Villa as Vanessa and Liliana Rodriguez as Carla. Villa also makes Vanessa her own and gifts the audience with a cool modulated voice as well as stunning dance moves. Rodriguez is great also displaying a wonderful voice however, her Carla I believe is a bit too ditsy. This is probably a direction aspect. Yes, the character does not get it most of the time but she is not dumb necessarily. I noticed the same with Sonny. Again, great vocals with Charlie Orozco but a little caricaturesque versus passionate or overspoken. Analía Romero as the beloved Abuela Claudia, well, P to the Power! and no wonder, a private music instructor with a Master´s in Afro-Latin music. Just wow. And particularly her track of Paciencia y Fé a key phrase in the musical and an amazing song about Abuela Claudia's childhood and how she abruptly left her hometown La Víbora in Cuba to come to New York. The first half includes a gorgeous, original, and touching choreography that featured women dancers all in white and barefoot. It was movingly flawless.

Ramiro Garcia Jr. as the Piragua Guy. SDMT's Production of ITH. Photo Jill Towsend
I always say to never underestimate the role of the Piragüero as it is a small but mighty one with vocal demands. Ramiro Garcia Jr. embraces the Piragua guy and gives sass as well along with amazing musical interpretation. Same with the Grafitti Pete role. Tommy Tran does a wonderful job with killer moves. 

I feel SDMT started out back in the day with a lot of love and passion for musical theatre productions did a great job, then lost their way a bit in the inclusion and diversity department to then come back like the Fenix stronger and better. The productions that they are working with now are on fire. Well crafted, well cast, and rounded out. Congratulations where it is due.

If you are an In The Heights fan, this is the production for you and if you have never seen it, this, is the production for you!

The wonderful and amazing ensemble members for this production who are also under studies and surely amazing are: Wes Dameron, Brian Osuna , Domo D’dante , Jamaelya ,Destiny Denny, Brianna Muñiz ,Shantal Vella, Tina Robin, Adelaida Martínez, Melba Novoa, and Edwin Rodriguez.

Music Director is Richard Dueñez Morrison. Lighting Design by Michelle Miles, Sound Design by Derek Brener, Costume Design by Janet Pitcher, Property Master Heather Longfellow, Wig & Hair Design – Albee Alvarado, and the Stage Manager is Paul Morgavo.

In The Heights is currently playing until June 5. Tickets range from $40-$75 dollars. 

  • COVID Protocol:  Proof of vaccination and masks are no longer required, but masks are encouraged.
  • For more information Click Here

MALA is a universal piece on the meaning of the circle of life

Referencing Key, Tender Touches When Being Part of a Latin American Family  

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Melinda Lopez in Mala, 2022. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

If you read the pieces in this blog regarding theatre and performances, you will see a constant and very true statement about how powerful the art form is. I do not want to use the "I'm a Mexican woman" card for this blogview but I have to (lol). As any immigrant, or foreign person seeing foreign theatre, because American theatre is in some way foreign, you see and feel different things that the regular citizens sometimes do not.

I fear every time there is a BIPOC piece announced with bells and whistles because usually, it goes on to the vice of stereotypes, over told, abused, sad narratives and it makes us look like we are struggling all the time while being frustrated. Granted, not all pieces are like that and everybody feels sad and frustrated from time to time. With Mala, written by and starring Melinda Lopez, this one-woman show involves a universal story about getting old and what it means to slowly lose your independence. Melinda takes us through her experience with her Cuban-born mother while struggling with dementia and fighting the consequences that come with it like, forgetting where you are, falling, and antagonizing your loved ones. Hence the title Mala which means "bad" but as she explains, bad to your core, a bad person. And that is what mom calls her when she sends her off in an ambulance. "¡Tú eres mala!".

The marvel of this piece is that it does not have a label. It is not specific to Latin American people per se, it can be anybody going through -literally- the circle of life. What does resonate with the Latinamerican culture are the reactions and funny bits. Directed by David Dower, Melinda handles the stage gracefully and has a wonderful paced 360 rhythm facing the four sides of the audience in the round of the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Alexander V. Nichols's scenic design of a living room is detailed and tasteful with hardwood floors, a super cute table with a triangular base (wanted to take it home) and a chest that sort of symbolizes memories, pandora box style. The stage is surrounded by snow as a reference to blizzards that take place where they are and is also a canvas for the names of the people in this story as well as the feelings that come with what is happening. 

Melinda Lopez in Mala, 2022. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The almost 90-minute piece with no intermission brings out different feelings that most of us have experienced while losing a loved one because of an illness and/or getting older. Still, the piece needs a bit of work and tightening. As talented as Melinda is and as wonderful as the stories she is sharing with us are, the portrayal of the different characters starts to get a bit tedious and that gets you out of the story and center which is the mom. I believe 15 to 20 minutes less in duration would be perfect.

A very cool aspect of this production and of The Old Globe by taking this leap is that there will be performances fully in Spanish with the amazing Yadira Correa who is also the understudy for the performances in English. Please note a super peeve of mine, that when you say "Spanish performances" or "Spanish" anything, it is making reference to the country, not the language? kicking all of Latinamerica to the curve? With that said, I will also be reviewing the performance IN Spanish with Yadira and not compare the two but, enrich the bilingual experience with both.

I also noticed and it made me sad to see the low attendance at the performance. And, it was opening night. Understandably, people still feel weird about indoor events and the COVID policies going everywhere from mask to no-mask, to "strongly encouraged". I will go ahead and assume that it might be because of the title in Spanish and it is not that appealing maybe? Whatever it is, it is necessary and important to come together and support live theatre.

  • The performances in English for Mala will be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
  • The schedule for Mala in Spanish is Thursday, May 19 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 p.m.; Tuesday, May 24 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 28 at 2:00 p.m.; Wednesday, June 1 at 7:00 p.m.; Sunday, June 5 at 7:00 p.m.; Friday, June 10 at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m.
  • After its run on The Old Globe’s stage, Mala will embark on an invitation-only spring Globe for All Tour, which will visit multiple venues across the binational region. The tour will run from June 15 to June 19 and will perform in English at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility and at the San Diego Rescue Mission; and in Spanish at the following venues: San Diego Rescue Mission, Lauderbach Park, Otay Mesa-Nestor Branch Library, and Centro Cultural de Tijuana (CECUT) in Tijuana, Mexico. 
  • COVID Protocol:  Proof of vaccination and masks are no longer required, but masks are encouraged
For more information CLICK HERE.

MOXIE Theatre Leads Southern California Premiere of Jane Anderson's MOTHER OF THE MAID

Majestically Staged. Not To Be Missed. 

Jennifer Eve Thorn is Isabelle Arc in Mother of the Maid. Photo Desireé Clarke
Joan of Arc, a young 17-year-old French woman with humble origins, suddenly receives visions from saints and archangels that reveal that she is the chosen one to recover France from the English domination. In a time-lapse of around two years, Arc goes to battle, leads a successful army, and gets Charles the crown, to then being captured, accused of heresy, and burned at the stake. She was only 19.

There is definitely a before and after in theatre and content regarding the COVID 19 pandemic. I felt that when theatres started coming back around July of 2021, I found the content selection to be somewhat -weird-. Instead of happy, celebratory pieces, many of them were hardcore, heavy labyrinths that did not feel necessarily welcoming. We react to an artform according to how we are feeling at the time and at what stage we are in life. Maybe theatres were choosing these pieces because of the -weird- times and feelings. Where am I going with this ramble? Well, as the month of May rolls over, the month that houses mother's day, I consider the play Mother of the Maid to be a fitting one. MOXIE Theatre is leading the Southern California premiere of Jane Anderson's piece that not only shines a light on Joan of Arc's story and unjust murder but, a light on Isabelle Arc, her mother. 

Zack King and Mikaela Rae Macias in Mother of the Maid. Photo Desireé Clarke
The production has a couple of debuts that are right on the money as well as stellar lighting and sound design. Desireé Clarke in her directorial debut with MOXIE did a wonderful job with the whole cast but truly found the "Isabelle soul" in Jennifer Thorn who is fantastic as the Maid's mother. This role brought the woman, the mother, the actress, and the storyteller all together in Thorn delivering a mature, grounded performance, reflecting a detailed curation from mannerisms to glances, winks, and specific tones. I found simple gestures to be so meaningful, like the way she looks at Joan, Joannie as she calls her while grabbing a stool to hold a bucket of wool and clean it parting a gorgeous, seemingly heavy cotton skirt, a piece of Courtney Ohnstad's on-point costume design. It is always the simple things that round out greatness. 

The rapport between Jennifer and Mikaela Rae Macias in her MOXIE debut as Joan Arc was totally pure. Macias moves around gracefully on stage and looks at the audience with intention and depth while delivering those stellarly written lines explaining her visions of Saint Catherine, not being interested in boys, and knowing she will not make a good wife.  Macias makes it look easy when it is the opposite. What better way to appreciate theatre than with a well-written play and solid acting. 

Jennifer Eve Thorn and Dave Rivas in Mother of the Maid.
Photo Desireé Clarke

Dave Rivas in his portrayal as the patriarch Jacques Arc in the first act is strong and dark with tints of macho, very fitting for those times. In the second act, we see a concerned, scared, grieving father desperately searching for his daughter's well-being, asking all the right questions to Father Gilbert (Mark C. Petrich) who weather vane's between the first and second act by supporting Joan's visions and then dismissing or questioning them. Zack King as Joan's brother and combat partner, Pierre Arc brings a bit of comedic balm and lightness to the piece also engaging in great rapport with Mikaela. Sarah Alida LeClair as Lady of the Court is total entertaining royalty speaking from her privilege full of ignorance yet, innocent. Also flaunting a gorgeous purple sheen gown and Sergio Diaz-Delgado works two sides well as the unphased Scribe first to then provoke the audience even more with his delivery of the cruel and careless guard. Diaz-Delgado is also Assistant Stage Manager for the play, talk about versatility.

Yi-Chien Lee's set design, all in one, transforms the Arc's home into a French castle to then the prison where Joan lives  her last days. Towards the end, we see that there are two wide doors that open on the stage and accentuate Joan's confinement as well as Isabelle's closing monologue. Annelise Salazar's stellar lighting design sets and boosts every scene using mostly what would seem a chiaroscuro technique, contrasting light with shadow and adding maple colors. It is like a Rembrandt painting coming to life. Sound designer Rachel Levine crafted a SICK soundtrack that plays through the piece with instrumental and contemporary adaptations of songs like Cindy Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Linkin Park's In the End, and The White Stripes Seven Nation Army amongst several other musical gems. This is brilliant.

Sergio Diaz-Delgado and Sarah Alida LeClair in Mother of the Maid.
Photo Desireé Clarke
Credit where credit is due and MOXIE Theatre's production of Mother of the Maid is one that, should not be missed also leading by, and with example as a nonprofit theatre company boosting young, diverse talent both on and off the stage as well as supporting the community by offering 15 dollar rush tickets to every performance AND setting aside 10 free tickets each performance for people who cannot afford it at that time. I have seen no other company do this and I think more should follow. In the meantime, this information should continue to be shared and boosted.

I saw this play by coincidence with my mother. I can assure you it hit differently.

Mother of the Maid is currently playing at the Rolando venue until May 22. For more information, ticket prices, and performance times, click HERE.

Other Design and Production Team members for this production include Stage Manager: Megan Ames, Props Designer: Amy Chini, Technical Director: Nathan Waits, Scenic Artist: Julie Lorenz, and Production Managers: Megan Ames & Nicole Ries.