Now as ever, New York City is a place for dreams. Some of those dreams are pursued amid the busy streets of close-knit neighborhoods, where immigrant families and friends scuffle toward a better life. Others are played out across stages under bright lights, where passions pulse and songs soar through that efficient pleasure-delivery system known as the Broadway musical.
In the Heights, which opens the 2019-’20 season at Portland Center Stage is a dream in both these ways, and the beginning of a dream come true for those wanting renewed energy and relevance in the American musical.
The greatest energy infusion in a generation has come from composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: an American Musical, the 2015 cultural supernova that won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize with its inspired blend of hip-hop and history. But Miranda already had brought rhythmic juice and sociological savvy to Broadway with In the Heights, a vibrant, witty and heartfelt tribute to his heavily Hispanic Upper Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights.
Conceived and presented in its earliest form while Miranda was a student at Wesleyan University, In the Heights underwent several years of development, emerging as a 2008 Broadway hit that won Tonys for best musical and best original score, as well as a best-actor nomination for Miranda in the role of Usnavi, a bodega owner at the center of the story.
In its completed version, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it’s a story of striving and celebrating, of struggles and hopes, of worries and romances, of a community balancing precariously between continuity and change. Some critics have griped about the “soap opera” quality of the story, but “In the Heights” pulses with real human feeling as well as its propulsive mix of salsa, soul and hip-hop.
The show has been in Portland before, as a Broadway bus-and-trucker in 2010, then in a local production by Stumptown Stages that was a 2016 Drammy Award finalist for outstanding ensemble. This latest is a sort of regional-theater mega-production: Directed by May Adrales and featuring a mostly consistent cast, it arrives at Portland Center Stage following month-long runs last season at Milwaukee Rep, Seattle Rep and the Cincinnati Playhouse.
Time has come today
Somewhere amidst my books, last time I checked, I still have programs from the first several iterations of the Time Based Art Festival, more commonly known as TBA, the flagship program from the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. I’ve lots of fond memories of excitement and discovery from those days, diving into the festival’s diverse array of multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and, well, sometimes just undisciplined art.
Over the past decade, however, I’ve grown progressively less interested in TBA’s brand of progressivism, coming to prefer more familiar and definable performance forms and such old-fashioned virtues as, oh you know, coherent writing. I’ve become a snob for conventional theater.
By contrast, TBA is, according to the PICA website, “ten days of contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” Actually, Sept. 5-15 is eleven days, but at least that description is easy to follow, unlike much of the rest of the TBA program notes. I always found that the festival experience benefited greatly by seeing as much as possible, whereupon the good, the bad, the interesting and the weird all informed and enhanced one another. But unless you have loads of free time and the money for one of the upper-tier passes ($200 for the Immersion Pass or $500 for the Patron Pass), you’ll need to pick and choose. And that leads to poring over program notes, trying to decipher all manner of performance-theory gobbledygook that rarely offers much sense of what might be in store. (One performance description this year promises “textures of reflection dipped in impressions of deconstruction and decay.”)
This critic’s curmudgeonly caveats aside, some very promising shows for theater fans appear on this year’s TBA calendar. Sept. 12-14, Anthony Hudson’s drag-clown character Carla Rossi puts a queer spin on coming-of-age story form with Looking for Tiger Lily, an exploration of cultural, racial and gender norms shot through with caustic wit and trenchant insight. And on the 13th and 14th, Seattle musician and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo presents Susan, a musical portrait of his American mother coping with abandonment by his Nigerian father.
While acknowledging that his unflinching stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is “designed to hit you hard,” co-writer Robert Icke told the Hollywood Reporter, “if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.” The original London production reportedly got so far under the skin that some audience members fainted. Director Damaso Rodriguez stages it for Artists Repertory Theatre, with a top-flight Portland cast featuring Chris Harder as beleaguered hero Winston Smith.
Multi-character/single-actor shows are challenging by their very nature, and you’d think that’d be especially so for young performers. But Lauren Steele, who stars in the West Coast premiere of Queens Girl in the World for Clackamas Rep, has the kind of powerhouse presence and keen intelligence to make you confident she’ll rise to the challenge. A coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water tale of a black girl in the 1960s moving from Queens to the wilds of Greenwich Village, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ play — directed here by Damaris Webb — also occasions some pre- and post-show lectures about the racial politics and literature of its time period.
Solo performers at least have an audience around them. Being a caregiver for a dying parent often can be lonelier work. In Mala, a play by Melinda Lopez, delves into that fraught (and for growing numbers of us, familiar) subject, with the compelling Julana Torres performing, directed by Brian Shnipper.
Summer may nearly be over, but Lakewood Theatre Company and director John Oules are going to camp. That is, they’re staging The Rocky Horror Show. Y’know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Devised theater can be rich with fresh perspective or can fall prey to the lack of a cohesive voice and coherent structure. (Though, to be fair, I suppose a conventionally written script can have the same range of outcomes.) And an “authentic, empowering, sex-positive, feminist portrayal of local strippers” might be an intriguing show premise to some theatergoers but I cannot honestly count myself in their number. But I am interested in From the Ruby Lounge — produced by William Thomas Berk, who, along with the cast and crew, devised the script — because of some of the promising young talents involved such as co-director Sarah Marie Andrews, her Crave Theatre co-founder Kylie Jennifer Rose, and Taylor Jean Grady. The show’s run ends on Saturday, with only so many seats available in the Shoebox Theater, so scarcity adds value, too.
Also looking worthy of your time, even on such a busy weekend, is a production of Hamlet by the young company Clever Enough. The twist here? Apparently a heightened emphasis on — of all possible characters — Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince in this Danish tale, the guy who usually just shows up at the end to clear out the bodies and take over the throne.
The flattened stage
With the opening of another promising theater season, perhaps we should revisit some performance tips from a master thespian:
Best line(s) I read this week
“Art does not reflect society and environment and consciousness so much as it tells us what environment and society and consciousness do not know. It compensates for conscious attitudes; it reveals to us that there are other, perhaps opposite, but still tenable ways of looking at things, of feeling about things…Art tells us what we do not know or do not realize. And it prepares the way for change.”
— from “The Jazz Tradition” by Martin Williams
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.