REVIEW: 26 Miles (Teatro Vista and Rivendell Ensemble)

‘26 Miles’ is quite the trip!

 

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Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present
   
26 Miles
   
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Tara Mallen
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

The distance between Philadelphia and Wyoming is 1,835 miles. The distance between a mother and daughter is further away and closer than that. Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present the Midwest premiere of 26 Miles by Tony-Award winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quirky teenager Olivia runs away from her dad’s house. She is assisted in the escape by her mother. After throwing up fifteen times, Olivia is desperate for someone to care. She calls her biological mother, Beatriz, who had given up custody and visitation rights eight years earlier. In fact, 26Miles6282according to Olivia’s journal log, Beatriz hasn’t spoken to her daughter in five months. A spontaneous road trip to see buffalo becomes a journey of self-realization for mother and daughter. With a jamming 80’s soundtrack, 26 Miles is a trip of discovery that takes some surprising turns.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes doesn’t rush to the destination. Hudes allows the characters to continue to identify themselves right up until the show comes to a complete stop. The mother-daughter duo drives the experience perfectly. Ashley Neal (Olivia) is hilarious as the creative philosophical teenager. She muses her journal thoughts out loud with “note: do I believe in…” She publishes a magazine. Neal is that high school geek that is too smart to fit in. Her animated face adds another layer of humor to her stellar performance. Sandra Marquez (Beatriz) is the feisty Cuban mother. Marquez rages with impulsiveness. Unlike Neal’s character, Marquez is not easily recognizable. As the M.I.A. mom, Marquez has to work extra hard to win the audience over. Marquez commits for the long haul! She faces the situation with wise resignation of ‘it’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s like erosion. It just is.’ Keith Kupferer (Aaron) and Edward Torres (Manuel) are the guys that cause the gals to run. They take a back seat to the mother-daughter bonding. Although their supporting roles are important, it’s their amusing scene transition antics that are most memorable.

 

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Director Tara Mallen has mapped the journey with purposeful appeal. Mallen doesn’t settle with poignant performances by a talented cast. She adds in paper flying, music blaring and Blues Brothers’ scene transitions. The extras provide the scenic route on what could be a long road trip. The scenery itself also supplies a subtle layer of storytelling. The set, designed by Regina Garcia, has a slanted floor with suspended stairs that don’t quite connect. The backdrop is a snippet of Olivia’s journal with pictures and words. It’s a trip! Teatro Vista and Rivendell travel well together; all the parts work together for high performance. It’s the truly collaborative effort that catapults 26 Miles to go the distance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
    

26 Miles plays every Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through November 21st.  Running time is 90-minutes with no intermission.

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REVIEW: In the Heights

Latin flavored, hip-hop musical speaks to any community

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Broadway in Chicago presents:

In The Heights

Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music and Lyrics by
Lin Manuel-Miranda
Choreography by
Andy Blankenbuehler
thru January 3rd (ticket info)

Review by Oliver Sava

intheheights01 Lin Manuel-Miranda‘s Tony-award winning music and lyrics for In The Heights are filled with so much passion and life that it would be difficult for any company to turn in low energy performances. The national tour of the 2008 Tony award winner for Best Musical finally arrives in Chicago for a limited two week run, and while the setting may be New York City’s Washington Heights, the show tells a story that will resonate with denizens of any neighborhood. The Latin influence of Miranda’s score, combined with hip-hop beats and raps, creates a beautifully layered musical mosaic with wonderful versatility. Miranda also has a great talent for taking classical musical theater techniques and giving them a fresh, modern flair. The opening number seamlessly introduced characters and their relationship without becoming too expository, a feat accomplished by shifting musical themes.

Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), the musical’s protagonist, primarily resides musically in the world of hip hop and rap. The play’s older characters, Abuela (Claudia Santora) and Kevin (Daniel Bolero) and Camila Rosario (Natalie Toro), in Latin folk, and the women of the Unisex Salon, Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), in Salsa. Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.), the only non-Hispanic character of the show, is accompanied by Reggaeton beats, and the female love interests Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) and Nina (Arielle Jacobs) bring the flavors of Latin pop. The music brings definition to the characters, making the actors’ jobs much easier. The tightness of the entire team, including the rich book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, brings so many layers to the world of the play.

Nobody soars more than Jacobs as the conflicted, guilt-filled Nina, back home with 20the news that Washington Heights’ sure-fire success is now a college dropout. Her vocals are phenomenal and they blend beautifully with Douglas Jr.’s for their numerous duets. Andy Blankenbuehler‘s choreography finds the perfect balance of dance styles to match the variety of the musical score, combining the hard hitting pops and locks of hip-hop with the smoothness of Latin ballroom choreography. The visual images are stunning, and the unique rhythm of the movement makes the dance sequences unpredictable and completely enthralling.

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In The Heights was a labor of love for the original Broadway cast, performing that rare feat of transferring an original musical from Off-Broadway to Great White Way success, but how can someone step into a role that is so defined by the actor that originated it? The main character in particular has become so associated with Miranda that it is difficult to imagine anyone that could step in the composer-actor’s shoes, yet Beltran does a more than serviceable job.  The best thing that can be said about the actors is that they have found their homes in this world, and that is what lies at the heart of In The Heights: home. The connection between the characters and their neighborhood is what creates the most dramatic, emotional events of the play, and the actors have fallen into a world of rusty fire escapes and melting Piragua on their fingertips completely.

In The Heights may be a crowd-pleasing combination of musical theater, big dance numbers and hip music and belted ballads, but it’s also very good musical theater. It’s not perfection, and sometimes the energy on stage could be even more explosive, but it has a big heart that shows a love for its musical predecessors. The musical is a love letter to community and to the hundreds of stories the past holds, whether on a street corner or Puerta Plata, and the touring company successfully makes their home our home.

Rating: ★★★

 

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