Academy Players Brings Washington Heights to RI

heightsIn the Heights is a Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes Tony award winning musical. I don’t get up to NYC as much as I would like, so I sat down to watch Academy’s production not knowing what to expect. The set was not only fitting, but clever as well, as it doubled as the concessions stand during intermission. I particularly enjoyed the tip of the hat to the upcoming presidential election and current hot shows on Broadway. Director Rita Maron didn’t stop there, however, as she inserted a sound bite from Donald Trump into the opening scene. Although this show is over seven years old, recent remarks in the news illustrate just how relevant this musical is.

Maron, along with her assistant director, Melissa Thomas, have assembled a terrific group of performers here. And one thing to note, Thomas took on the additional job of dialect coach, and it must be noted that the Spanish sounded natural, and not forced in any way. Allison Fusco Iannucci’s choreography was a delight. These women clearly make a great team.

It’s great that the cast is so large; it really draws you into the musical because they literally are everywhere. This was a talented cast; however, with a large cast, you can’t mention everyone, so here are a few highlights.

This musical follows Usnavi (Matt Lavigne) as he narrates three days that ultimately shape his neighborhood. He longs to go back to the Dominican Republic one day, but for now he is running the neighborhood bodega. We meet most of the neighborhood as they enter his bodega: Vanessa, his love interest, who works in the neighborhood salon and dreams of her own apartment; Nina Rosario, who is home from college after dropping out, his Abuela, and finally his younger cousin Sonny.

The first performer you notice in this production is Matt Lavigne who played Usnavi. His performance was captivating, especially when you realize how young he is. Sitting in the audience I was convinced that he had at least a few semesters under his belt with one of the great theater programs in our state. I learned that this wasn’t the case, and he had recently graduated high school. He had me in tears during “Albanza” and I am sure I wasn’t the only one. He had the charisma, the voice and the acting chops for this demanding role.

The performance I saw was the co-study performance. Maron refers to understudies as co-studys and after seeing the production, I can understand why. Watching the show, you had no idea that some of the performers only played their role a few times. In fact, it wasn’t until I came home and read the program that I realized Courtney Contente, who played Vanessa, was in fact a co-performer. Simply put, Contente is a powerhouse. Her voice soared every time she sang, but especially in “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Champagne.” I thoroughly enjoyed her performance; she is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Genesis Johnson played Daniela the night I saw the performance.  Her warm voice was perfect for “Carnaval del Barrio,” and she was flawless for “No Me Diga,” lending comedic relief to the show. We can clearly expect big things in the future from Johnson.

Mackenzie Maron played Nina and had some very sweet moments with her love interest, Benny, portrayed by Nic Godfray. Maron has a lovely voice, and there were times you wanted to sing along with her as her confidence soared throughout the theater. As with the other co-performers, after seeing her performance it is hard to visualize anyone else doing the role.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Elijah Benson’s performance as the Piragua Guy. He was hands-down my son’s favorite performer, although I suspect the additional audience participation around that character was the reason why!

I can’t close this out without mentioning Tyree Berdecia. He played Sonny and truly did a stellar job.

There are so many reasons to admire Academy Players. I adore the fact that they take young adults, offer them challenging roles on and off the stage, and provide them with a theatrical experience. (Of course it’s no wonder as many of the artists running Academy are teachers to begin with.) However, their Stage Door project is fantastic. We all know that the arts are in their own way therapeutic, but Academy takes this a step further by using theater as a way to raise funds for local charities. After the devastating vandalism of the Impossible Dream playground, the group decided to hold a 50/50 raffle to assist in paying for the damage. They were also holding a school supply drive for an elementary school in North Providence. It is always great to see people give back to their community, and anytime the arts community gives back I can’t help but smile.

In the Heights runs until August 30.  To purchase tickets visit academyplayersri.org, although I have heard that there aren’t a lot of tickets left!

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