You can pay as much as $76.25 to see the ambitious hip-hop and Latino music-propelled “In the Heights,” but also pay as little as $29.99 to experience the pure pleasure of the classic farce “Room Service.” Both shows are playing Off Broadway and both provide entertainment that is comparable to anything on Broadway for twice the price. There are also two other Off Broadway dramas worthy of your time, the vintage “The Madras House” by Harley Granville-Barker and the contemporary “All That I Will Ever Become” by Six Feet Under scribe Alan Ball.
#h#In the Heights#/h#
‘In the Heights” is a beautifully produced, dynamically performed, excitingly choreographed, and briskly directed new musical that has the look of a big Broadway musical. Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University, his musical comes close to achieving the heights. Miranda, who not only wrote the music and lyrics, also stands out as a leading character in a musical full of wonderfully realized characters. Also at the helm of the show since its student production is director Thomas Kail. Except for a somewhat predictable yet amiable book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, this production does for Washington Heights what “Rent” did for the lower East Side, but without the despair.
The exhilarating title song number that opens the show immediately provides the flavor and the pulse of the neighborhood’s Latino people. But it is the individual characters that quickly come into focus with their personal hopes and fortunes. It is to the musical’s good fortune that we care for these people as we see them cope with the inevitable commercial changes in their midst as well as with their own personal transformations. The musical takes place over the course of a July 4th weekend, complete with fireworks.
Although Miranda serves as the show’s narrator, his vital presence and enlivening performance as Usnavi, a rapping local bodega owner, is felt throughout. Mainly it is the story of a family, the Rosarios, who are faced with the impending loss of their family taxi business. They are also dealing with the unsettling decision by their exceptionally bright daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), not to return and complete a degree at Stanford University.
Usnavi’s romantic interest in the beautiful Vanessa (normally played by Doreen Montalvo, but played by a particularly vivacious Asmeret Ghebremichael at the performance I attended) is as endearing as is his care-giving devotion to his grandmother, Abuela Claudio (Olga Merediz). Merediz takes the lead in two of the shows many rousing numbers, notably “Paciencia Y Fe” (Patience and Faith) and “Hundreds of Stories.” The main romantic conflict involves Nina and Benny (Christopher Jackson), the volatile young man who works for Nina’s parents but whom they think is not good enough for her.
All the busy and pulsating action, under Kail’s impressive direction, takes place in an impressionistic, vividly dimensional street setting designed by Anna Louizos. Many sub-plots sprawl across the stage, but they all connect when it matters and when choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler gets them dancing variations on salsa, meringue, bolero, and other Latin-based music and rhythms. However, it is mainly Miranda’s terrific score and the mostly youthful cast that ultimately empowers this exciting and up-lifting new musical. 3 stars.
“In the Heights,” 37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street. $36.25 to $76.25. 212-307-4100.
The Peccadillo Theater Company’s production of the 1937 classic quintessential screwball comedy “Room Service” proved such a hit earlier this season that it recently extended its original run with a move to the SoHo Playhouse. The original Broadway play was a huge success and inspired a film version in 1938 that starred the Marx Brothers. This revival has been directed by Dan Ackerman with an appropriately free-spirited consideration for the play’s zany demands.
The plot concerns the efforts of a desperate and very broke theatrical producer who is hoping for a hit to bail him out of debt. To this end, he is keeping his company ensconced within a Times Square hotel while he attempts to find a backer for his latest play.
Be prepared for the sheer preposterousness of compounding situations: a representative for a wealthy investor with money to burn finds the hotel doctor bound and gagged in the bathroom; the naive playwright unexpectedly shows up and is coerced into faking his own death; a nonplussed and put-upon hotel manager, who is also the producer’s brother-in-law, tries to keep his boss from finding out that the entire cast, including an eccentric director, is being sheltered in the hotel and fed on the QT, and the debts keep piling up. Do we have to mention the speed with which the snappy dialogue is delivered or the abundance of hilariously executed slapstick that never wears out its welcome?
All the performers leave no doubt that they are expert farceurs, but David Edwards, as the producer; Dale Carmen, as the hotel manager, and Leo Davis as the playwright are notably standout. This is a rare opportunity to see a fine old farce performed with the aplomb that it deserves. 3 stars.
“Room Service,” through Tuesday, March 27, Soho Playhouse,15 Vandam St. (between 6th and 7th avenues). $65 and $29.99. 212-691-1555 or www.sohoplayhouse.com.
#h#The Madras House#/h#
It is interesting to note that “The Madras House,” a production of the Mint Theater, known for their reverential treatment of the classic plays they resurrect, is by Harley Granville-Barker, an Edwardian playwright currently enjoying a renewed vogue. Although his stature is not in the same league with his contemporary George Bernard Shaw, it is to be savored again by those with an inclination to revisit the social and societal issues of the time.
If Granville-Barker’s prose in not buoyed by Shavian-like wit, it has a literacy and grace that is uniquely his. Although his plays tend to be long and talky, “The Madras House” will hold your attention over its three-hour course. Incidentally, David Mamet did a commendable pruning of Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance,” which is currently running at the Atlantic Theater, but was staged in its entirety by the Mint Theater in 1999 and again in 2000.
First produced in London in 1915, “The Madras House,” in particular, is a compelling and provocative story of a middle class family, owners of a large department store, whose intra-family intrigues and misalliances co-mingle with the “living-in system” a terrible condition for the working class that permitted employers to house and also to virtually own and dictate the private lives of their employees.
You can’t go wrong with a cast headed by Jonathan Hogan, Laurie Kennedy, Roberta Maxwell, and George Morfogen, under the sterling direction of Gus Kaikkonen. (Mr. Kaikkonen went on for Mr. Morfogen at the performance I saw, and held his own quite nicely). Despite its mid-point longeuers, “The Madras House” tackles the status of women in Edwardian England with a considerably droll, if convoluted, plot that involves a family roue and a houseful of unmarried daughters. 2 stars.
“The Madras House,” through Sunday, March 11, the Mint Theater, third floor of 311 West 43rd Street. $45. 212-315-0231 or www.minttheater.org.
#h#All That I Will Ever Be#/h#
Although Alan Ball is most famed for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “American Beauty,” and as writer and director of the multiple award-winning HBO TV series “Six Feet Under,” his most recent play is also calculated to shake up our more moralistic and judgmental attitudes regarding sex, particular as they might relate to self-worth and bi-sexuality. “All That I Will Ever Be” is a trenchant and provocative yarn that draws us into the life of a studly bi-sexual immigrant from the Middle East who appears to be trying in vain to establish an identity and a sense of permanence within the more responsive and receptive underbelly of a sexually needy/indulgent society.
While working his day job as an electronics salesman, at night Omar (Peter Macdissian, whom you may recall as the bi-sexual art instructor in “Six Feet Under”), sells himself over the Internet as a sexual partner for both men and women. A series of relationships with a self-pitying but privileged young man living off handouts from his wealthy father, a somewhat vicious female producer, a gentle older man, and a few others, brings Omar to a critical and defining point in his life.
While the play does not spare us simulated male sex, it also provides plenty of pithy and gritty dialogue as well as scenes that resonate with a dramatic verity. Relating to the characters may be a challenge, but under Joe Bonney’s specific direction, they will linger in your mind just long enough for you to grasp what it is that Ball wants us to see in them and perhaps in ourselves. 2 stars.
“All That I Will Ever Be,” through Sunday, March 11, New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street. $60. 212-239-6200.