Tag Archives: strathcona theatre

In the Heights! Scona Theatre production at the Westbury

This year’s big musical by the Strathcona (High School) Theatre Co. is In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation with book by Qiara Alegria Hudes, which opened on Broadway in 2008.   It was a good choice for this company and the venue (Westbury Theatre), where a huge crowd of exuberant performers and an interesting detailed set had enough space to tell the story and the risers were filled with parents, friends, and members of the local theatre community.  The Heights refers to the north Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a mostly-Dominican neighbourhood. The set for the Scona production had two three-story brick buildings flanking some steps and an elevated walkway at the back of the stage, then a projection screen showing views of the bridge in the background.  The main floors of the buildings were small shopfronts behind metal blinds (“grates”), a beauty salon, a bodega or convenience store, a car service (dispatched taxis) and one graffiti-marked storefront that just stayed closed.  That was never mentioned, but it added to the sense of a neighbourhood in transition.  Upstairs were windows and balconies, which usually had people hanging out of them or leaning on them or looking down from them.  My first thought on looking at the set was that it reminded me of Sesame Street, because that was the only place I’d seen that kind of streetscape as a child.  (That and my brother’s Fisher-Price village.) The main characters are introduced by the young bodega owner, Usnavi (Aidan Burke), whom I thought was a particularly strong all-around performer in this show.  Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (James Kwak) is an amusing comic foil.  The manager and employees of the beauty salon (Siobhan Galpin, Christina Nguyen, Jade Robinson), struggling owners and ambitious worker of the car service (Kirkland Doiron, either Monica Lillo or Jocelyn Feltham and Evans Kwak), and “everyone’s abuela” Claudia (Manuela Aguerrevere) all have big enough parts that we get to know their stories.  The female lead is Nina (Olivia Aubin), daughter of the car-service family, who is returning home after her first year at Stanford University. I was also impressed by the dance moves and general stage presence of the actor playing Graffiti Pete, but there were two performers platooning in the role and no sign in the theatre telling which one we were seeing.  Either Robbie Wickins or Michael Sulyma.

There were at least 65 energetic performers in the cast as well as a pit band of 14.  This meant that there was always lots to watch, although the ensemble members did not distract from the important plot points or lead character solos.   The Latin dancing in the nightclub scene was great, and the large-crowd dancing in the song “96,000”.  Jordan Mah is credited as AD/ Assistant Choreographer.  Linette Smith directed and choreographed, and the music director was Jenn McMillan. I thought this show was an ideal choice for this company, taking advantage of not only some talented young individual performers but the depth of talent and enthusiasm allowing the director to create a joyful busy community in a high-density neighbourhood.  The story was universal enough to grasp without knowing anything else about the demographics (business owners struggle in a shifting block, city utilities are unreliable in a disrespected neighbourhood, and there is a lot of pressure on the young person who has the chance to succeed outside.)

Attached are some recent photos from the real Washington Heights neighbourhood in upper Manhattan, NYC.  You can see the grates over closed stores, the convenience store, and the grey and black fire hydrants.  Don’t expect this level of background research for all my theatre reviews (especially the one set in Uganda!) but I loved having this prep for my NYC vacation and finding the connections.  And now, back to Broadway!

image image Subway to Washington Heights

Anything Goes!

Before last night, I would have said that the Westbury Theatre at the Transalta Arts Barns had a large stage.  That was before I saw Strathcona Theatre’s performance of Anything Goes, which left me with the impression that the stage was just barely large enough for the cast of 50+ (I tried to count a couple of times, but they kept dancing!)  A clever stage design evoked the multiple decks, spiral staircases, and porthole-covered swinging doors of an Art Deco cruise liner, while also providing space for the pit musicians to play on an upper deck.  Last night’s preview show played to a full house, and since many of the family, friends, and fans of Strathcona Theatre got there earlier than I did, I was grateful for being able to watch some of the action as well as musicians not so far down from where I was sitting.

Early in the show, I thought that Sydney Williams, playing the nightclub singer and former evangelist Reno Sweeney, was dominating the show as a strong singer with good stage presence.  Adam Houston, as Billy Crocker, seemed a bit outmatched at first, with a difficult first song, but he hit his stride quickly and was more convincing later in the show.  The audience was particularly delighted with David Unsworth as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh when he broke out of his rather predictable exaggerated-aristocracy role late in the show (you can’t miss it).  I will definitely keep an eye out for this young actor in future productions.

The lyrics and music of this classic show (first staged in … with several revivals and revisions since) are by Cole Porter.  A few of the songs were quite familiar, especially “You’re the Top” and “I get a Kick Out of You”.   P.G. Wodehouse (also known for Jeeves and Wooster) had a hand in the book, and you can tell.   There were love triangles, gangsters, mistaken identities, tap-dancing sailors, an exceptionally well-behaved live dog in the cast (credited as Teddy Gorman), evangelists, missionaries, and converts, puns, innuendoes, and assorted happy endings.   When two or three actors were speaking or singing, there were often many other characters on the edges of the stage doing things that were interesting but not distracting, adding to the sense that more was happening than we could watch.

I was a little uncomfortable with the portrayals of the two Chinese converts Luke and John (James Kwak and Spencer Lloyd), complete with Mao jackets and the stereotypical accents common in fictional portrayals of the early 20th century, and the later adoption of “Chinese” disguises by other characters.  I’m not sure why the humorous portrayal of the English aristocrat didn’t disturb me the same way.   Maybe it felt a bit like blackface.   I would not be surprised if it had been toned down from Broadway versions, though.

Linette Smith is Director and Choreographer, and Stephen Delano is Musical Director.  There were a few technical glitches in this first preview performance – some sound balancing or sound cuing that was a bit slow, and one door that came off its hinges distractingly – but nothing that should interfere with the audience’s appreciation during the run of the show.  It continues until Saturday night at the Westbury Theatre, with tickets available at Tix on the Square .