In the Heights

The Little Engine That Does

Starting small but thinking big, the musical-theater company Stumptown Stages has made itself a leader in equity and diversity

What do you know about Stumptown Stages? 

A regular Portland theatergoer might reasonably be assumed to know that Stumptown Stages has now been around for a decade and a half or so, that its forté is musicals, both new and old, and that it’s led by two of the more accomplished names in Portland theater, Kirk Mouser (producing artistic director) and Julianne Johnson (associate artistic director and board chair), both of whom are seasoned veterans of stages from New York City to the Rose City. 

What might not be so well known is that Stumptown Stages is one of the Portland theater scene’s leaders in doing equity and diversity work, and that this was a company focus long before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest. One might be forgiven for not knowing that years ago, when Johnson and Mouser were looking to mount their first production together, Dreamgirls, a prominent director/producer (who shall remain nameless – “a quick disclaimer,” says Mouser, “it is not Corey Brunish”) said to Mouser, “Good luck, you’ll never find the Black talent here in Portland.” 

Julianne Johnson (left, with Shahayla Onanaiye and Kristin Robinson) in Stumptown’s hit production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo courtesy Stumptown Stages

Johnson, naturally, took umbrage at this comment. “Okay, well, that would be me,” Johnson thought at the time, “and everybody I interact with.”  Neither Mouser nor Johnson has any idea what that director thought when Stumptown Stages did, in fact, produce a sold-out run of Dreamgirls at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, but that was the spark that ignited the proverbial forest fire. Mouser and Johnson formed an unbreakable bond, and together they now had a mission. Johnson joined Stumptown Stages as board chair and associate artistic director. Together they realized that they “had an important role to play,” says Mouser, a mission “to change the institutionalized racism that existed and exists in the Portland theater community.”

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The Week: See you in the dock

Autumn settles in swiftly, and with it the rhythms of a new cultural season, from "In the Heights" to the sidewalks of Forest Grove

AUTUMN’S SETTLED IN EARLY ACROSS MOST OF OREGON, and with it the rhythms and traditions of a new cultural season. Music, theater, dance – each has its own history and pattern, its own set of rituals. 

Corey Brunish, the Portland and New York performer and producer who has a handful of Tony Award statuettes as a producer on Broadway, has just been named one of more than two dozen nominees for this year’s Broadway Global Producer of the Year Award, on a list that also includes the likes of Gloria Estefan, John Legend, and Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Brunish, whose nomination is for the aggregate of his Broadway work, has an abiding love for the rituals of the theater, and often expresses it in musings about the still time before the curtain rises. He wrote this one, he says, during a California run of the new musical Empire, about the building of the Empire State Building, a show that’s still trying to raise backing for a Broadway run. But, he adds, it could be any show, any time, anywhere:

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Dancing is a highlight of Portland Center Stage’s In the Heights. Above: Alexander Gil Cruz, Eddie Martin Morales, Alyssa V. Gomez, UJ Mangune. Photo: Owen Carey

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‘In the Heights’: A transportive musical time capsule

Portland Center Stage takes you to Washington Heights in the early aughts with a grand, energetic production

By SHAWNA LIPTON

The majority of new Broadway musicals are jukebox compilations of pop and rock hits, restagings of campy Hollywood films, and reimaginings of Disney animated blockbusters. Among these iterative rehashings of popular culture, Lin-Manuel Miranda has innovated with his musical mashups and compelling original stories.

Portland Center Stage’s “In the Heights”/Photo by Owen Carey

Miranda is known for being a fresh voice in a medium prone to pandering to tourists rather than pushing artistic boundaries, infusing the mainstream musical theatre world with hip hop and Latin musical influences, and creating dynamic and varied roles for people of color, most famously with Hamilton: An American Musical.

Before he created Hamilton, there was In the Heights, now playing at Portland Center Stage, a high-energy entertainment with an impressive ensemble cast.

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DramaWatch: Moving in rhythm to creative Heights

Portland Center Stage kicks the theater season into musical high gear; plus TBA experiments, Artists Rep gets dystopian, and other calendar comings and goings.

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.

Ryan Alvarado (top) and cast members of In the Heights light up the neighborhood with song. Photo: Michael Brosilow_Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

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. 


Opening

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.

Lauren Steele stars as Jacqueline Marie Butler, trying to navigate the new in Queens Girl in the World, at Clackamas Rep. Photo: Travis Nodurft

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.


Closing

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.

The Week: TBA or not TBA?

As the contemporary arts festival surges onto an already bulging September calendar, that is the question.

A NEW CROP OF APPLES IS HITTING THE PRODUCE STANDS. Lush ripe tomatoes are overflowing gardens and markets. Cukes are ready for pickling. America’s schoolchildren, ready or not, are back in the saddle again. And today, for the 17th year, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA Festival kicks off again. “TBA” stands for “Time-Based Art,” which mainly means performance – art that takes place in a set period of time, in front of an audience – although visual art’s part of the mix, too. And the time is very contemporary: the art of today, for good and sometimes ill. As PICA puts it, the festival, which runs in venues around Portland through Sept. 15, “gathers artists and audiences from around the world” for eleven days of “contemporary performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, food, drink, conversation, and celebration.” 

Eiko Otake. Photo courtesy Joseph Scheer, IEA at NYSCC, via PICA


Over the years TBA’s had a lot of hits and a lot of misses. Its emphasis on non-traditional and resolutely experimental work can elevate the narcissistic and the sloppy. It can also champion fresh art of astonishing provocation and beauty, as it did in the festival’s very first incarnation, on Sept. 11, 2003, when, on the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, the great butoh-influenced performers Eiko and Koma stunned their Portland audience with an outdoor performance in and around the water at Jamison Square, beneath a darkening sky. That performance, eloquently titled Offering, was sad, deep, ghostlike, hopeful, profound. “It strikes me, on this anniversary of death, that the world’s war-makers would detest this dance, which is about deep truths that can’t be glossed or managed,” I wrote at the time. “One watches an invisible flight of ideas. It is the holy and the profane, inseparable, wrapped into one. A mystery.”

The good news is that Eiko Otake is back at TBA for the first time since that 2003 performance, and she’ll be a busy part of things. You can see her tonight, at TBA’s opening reception, in her evolving piece A Body in Places, based on her return to post-nuclear disaster Fukushima. Prints and video works will also be on view through Oct. 24 at PNCA’s 511 Gallery. There’ll be a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life, on Sept. 9. She’ll perform her Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable, with several collaborators, Sep. 12-14. And in a free event on Sept. 13, she’ll be in conversation with chroreographer Linda K. Johnson and PICA Artistic Director Kristan Kennedy.

 

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