March 15 - April 14, 2024
at Gateway Playhouse

The Long Island Advance

March 20, 2024 - Linda Leuzzi

Pulsing Latin beats, moving stories, infuse Gateway’s ‘In the Heights’

If you’ve ever scanned grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ photos, chances are scenes of front stoops, fire escapes, small-business storefronts, a subway entrance, and a distant iconic structure like the George Washington Bridge are in there. It wasn’t that long ago that many of our relatives immigrated to this country to settle and aspire in neighborhoods like these.

That’s what “In the Heights” offers. With a realistic set that reflects all the above, its story imbues the aspirations, yearnings, community, hard work, sacrifice, celebration of family, and generational conflicts in this euphoric Gateway production of a Latino barrio in Washington Heights and its people over a three-day period in the early 1980s.

A recent performance resounded with audience cries of “Arriba!” “Arriba!” and delirious applause several times. Its buoyant, youthful, rip-your-heart-out singing and dancing throughout, via individual characters and collectively, leave the audience with this wish: that this passionate, alive neighborhood family of 20, was your own.

Usnavi, played by Ryan Alvarado, who runs a small bodega, is the linchpin for this community, along with matriarch Abuela Claudia. Coming from The Dominican Republic as a baby with his parents who have since died, he is the unofficial, kind, self-effacing mayor selling lottery tickets and café con leches. Alvarado is an endearing, indelible presence—stunning, actually—as he raps, sings, dances, poignantly pines for his Vanessa, and cares for his cousin Sonny and Abuela Claudia, originally from Cuba.

He’s dead center in the opening “In the Heights” number, which introduces all its residents. Overall, the 23 numbers are musical extravaganzas of song, dance, and power (the choreography and direction by Vincent Ortega are stunning).

It’s percussion, Latin pop, salsa, in nearly all.

Alia Munsch as Nina sings the beautiful “Breathe” as she struggles to tell her neighborhood friends and parents that Stanford University dropped her scholarship after underperforming; she was overwhelmed by her jobs to keep up the costs and not studying. Her love interest, Benny, presents another dilemma. Played by Christian Brailsford, Benny is a riveting, romantic lead, with determined goals of upward mobility. He works for Nina’s dad at Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service as the head dispatcher.

Michelle Alves as Daniela is the spitfire, hilarious Unisex Beauty Shop owner, with amazing pipes, who loves gossip and hides a heart of gold despite a sassy tongue. Watch Alves tear the stage up in “No Me Diga.” Her assistant Carla (Juliana Andrea Betancur) is her comic sidekick trying to nudge the boss towards a little more kindness.

And what a force of nature! Sydia Cedeño as Abuela Claudia is a positive scene stealer. In “Patience and Faith,” the caring feeder of birds and neighborhood comforter who wins the $96,000 lottery ticket, sings of her journey to the States as three lovely dancers in white emulate her youth. When describing her travails here, she wails her dilemma in song: “What do you do when your dreams come true? What do I do with this winning lottery ticket?”

The crowd went wild.

Chelsea Zeno rocks it as Vanessa, yearning for a better apartment and life. Watch her in “The Club/Fireworks” scene with her red sequin dress as she dances away from Usnavi with other partners.

When Kevin Rosario, (Rubén Flores), father of Nina, makes an announcement over dinner, it’s another fiery look at a Puerto Rican seeking a better life away from farming with his wife. But he discounts her in the decision to sell his business as well as Benny’s love for his daughter. His wife Camilla, Francisca Muñoz, has her own fierce response in “Enough.”


Clap! Clap! Clap! To Felipe Cristancho Rodriguez as Sonny, Usnavi’s goofy cousin, as well as Mateus Barbosa Da Silva as Graffiti Pete, who ultimately redeems himself. And Javier Garcia as the Piragua Guy, what a voice! Kudos to the orchestra for their exquisite musicality keeping the beat going.

Bring your date, mom, dad, whoever, to this wonderful production.

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Broadway World

March 24, 2024 - Nicholas Pontolillo

IN THE HEIGHTS  Finds Home at The Gateway Playhouse

In January, The Gateway Playhouse put on a fabulous production of Fiddler on the Roof, a show about community in the face of change. Now the Gateway Playhouse is putting on In the Heights, the inverse to Fiddler. With In the Heights, we see a community of Latin Americans from all different countries that are deciding what do we pass on instead of what do we take with us?

Before Hamilton, before his Disney Renaissance (from Moana to Encanto), there was In the Heights, the show that introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda to the world. Miranda attended Wesleyan University where he enrolled in a student writers program called Playwrights Attic under the tutelage of M. Graham Smith (aka Matt). It was here where the creation of In the Heights began. Jonathan Larson’s Rent had a significant impact on Miranda. With Rent, Larson told a story about young artists struggling to survive and create a life in the East Village of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Wanting to connect to the MTV generation to the theater, Larson chose to write the musical score as a pop/rock opera. Miranda wanted to emulate that with In the Heights. He wanted to create a show that captured life in Washington Heights, his home. Instead of rock music, Miranda chose to incorporate the sounds of his youth: salsa, merengue and hip hop. After successful presentations, Miranda wanted to develop his idea into a full show. He asked his mentor Matt to direct the show. Unfortunately, Matt turned him down. At that time, Matt couldn’t take on the responsibility of directing a show with what was going on in his life at that time; Miranda was crushed. Many would have quit after that, but not Lin, he kept going. Miranda started writing In the Heights in 1999 and finalized the show in 2005. During that time, Miranda met and brought on his frequent collaborators: director Thomas Kail, musical director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. He also brought on book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes. After opening off-Broadway in 2007, In the Heights transferred to Broadway in 2008, where it ran for 1,184 performances and won 4 Tony awards including Best Musical. Miranda did not let one no deter his dreams. He remained determined to make his dreams a reality. That is what In the Heights is all about…the power of dreams and achieving them. The Gateway Playhouse is currently putting on a dream production of In the Heights that you don’t want to miss!

In the Heights turns the “lights up on Washington Heights” over the course of three days in the summer heat. In the largely Dominican American neighborhood, we are introduced to a wide array of characters who all dream an iteration of the American dream. There’s Nina, an intelligent girl, who made it out of the barrio, struggling to please her over-protective parents Kevin and Carla who dream their child will have a better life then their own. There’s Benny, the love of Nina’s life, who dreams of being accepted by Nina’s parents and have his own business. There’s Vanessa, the beautiful beautician that catches the eye of every man in town, who dreams of getting out of the barrio and getting her own apartment. These are just some of the wonderful characters that have their own el suañitos (little dreams). At the center of it all is Usnavi, the local bodega owner who saves every penny dreaming of a better life and who hopes one day to return to the Dominican Republic with his beloved grandmother in spirit Abuela Claudia. Will any of these dreams come true? They just might, depending on who is in possession of the winning lottery ticket Usnavi sold at the bodega.

The Gateway Playhouse went all out for this truly amazing production. First, they took it upon themselves to rent the original set from the Broadway production, and dios mio, does it take your breath away. You walk into the theater and are immediately transported; you feel like you are outside on the streets of New York City. I thought they converted the theater into an outdoor amphitheater; that’s how realistic it is. How Anna Louizos did not win the Tony for her set design is beyond me. Secondly, the Gateway was able to replicate the White Plains Performing Arts Center’s award-worthy 2023 production of In the Heights by recruiting that production’s director/choreographer Vincent Ortega and some of its ensemble. After serving as associate director/choreographer to countless productions at the Gateway, this is Ortega’s first time directing and he does a phenomenal job. Each number is perfectly staged and his choreography brilliantly echoes Blankenbuehler and will have you out of your seat. You will not be able to take your eyes off of the fantastic dancers in this show, especially Manuela Agudelo and Marina Vidal. The opening number is worth price of admission alone. Some other memorable numbers included: “It Won’t Be Long”, “96,000”, “Hundreds of Stories” and my personal favorite, “Alabanza”. “Alabanza” is absolutely gorgeous and will tug at your heartstrings; bring tissues!

The entire ensemble is absolutely fantastic. Ryan Alvarado has the daunting task of taking on the role of Usnavi, the role that made Lin-Manuel Miranda a star. He is absolutely charming and perfectly captures the eagerness and awkwardness of Usnavi. No wonder Miranda chose him to portray Alexander Hamilton in the first National tour of Hamilton. Chelsea Zeno and Christian Brailsford are living definitions of perfection in their roles of Vanessa and Benny respectively. They both have unbelievable voices and just when you think you’ve heard their best, you hear something better; there is no end to their greatness. I loved the depth Ruben Flores and Francisca Munoz brought to their roles of Kevin and Camila; they turned often overlooked numbers like “Inutil” and “Enough” into stand outs. Javier Garcia was excellent as the Piragua Guy and Michelle Alves will leave you in stitches as Daniela.

When Miranda was in the early stages of writing In the Heights and was sharing his material with M. Graham Smith, Lin received the best compliment of his career, a compliment he continues to strive for. Matt said, “You make an audience feel taken care of.” That is exactly what Lin does with all of his projects. Like Miranda, the Gateway also make their audiences feel taken care of. You definitely want to get over the Bellport, see the Gateway’s production of In the Heights, and relish in the comfort. Alabanza Gateway!

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Dan's Papers

March 28, 2024 - David Taylor

Gateway's 'In the Heights' Is a Celebration of Community

In the Heights, conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is not a musical driven by story in the way that shows like Chicago and Camelot are. Rather, it is an intimate snapshot of a barrio in Washington Heights — a looking glass into a neighborhood of people with relatable goals and struggles — told with heart and humor, an eclectic soundtrack, a little bit of camp and a whole lot of nostalgia. When telling stories this reliant on that sense of community, The Gateway team is at an advantage, with their familial vibe stemming from a close-knit roster of actors, designers, crew and staff, many of whom live together on the organization’s Bellport campus.

Before Gateway’s latest production begins, audience members are likely to marvel at the detailed set design, which captures the look and feel of the show’s urban setting with its towering brick apartment buildings, subway entrance and three impressively detailed storefronts: the Rosario’s car service company, a bodega and a hair salon. Working at these businesses are the show’s main characters, but before delving into their roles and portrayals, it’s worth noting how the large ensemble breathes so much life into this cross-section of Washington Heights. Background characters are frequently seen going about their daily lives, taking their child for a stroll, patronizing the local businesses or gossiping from their second-story apartments, all of which sells the feeling of a realistic lived-in community.

It should come as no surprise that a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical would feature at least one rapping character, and for this production, that honor is bestowed upon Usnavi, the main character, narrator and owner of the neighborhood’s struggling bodega who’s dreaming of a better life. Cast in this critical role is Ryan Alvarado, whose resume includes a national tour of Hamilton and a regional production of In the Heights. Verse after verse, the rhymes flow out of Alvarado with an effortless swagger, starting with the show’s opening spectacle, “In the Heights,” which effectively establishes the show’s central cast, their goals and the barrio they call home.

With the first scene consisting of mostly rapping, Chelsea Zeno’s introduction as Vanessa nearly catches the audience off guard with the power and tonal quality of her singing voice. Vanessa’s goal in the show is to secure her first apartment, and to leave her old life and salon job behind. Sadly, as one of the most relatable characters, Vanessa doesn’t get as much focus as Zeno’s excellent portrayal warrants. When she is on stage, it’s often to serve as Usnavi’s love interest — not that anyone is complaining about their endearing duet “Champagne.”

The show’s second will-they-won’t-they couple is that of Nina and Benny, portrayed by Alia Munsch and Christian Brailsford respectively. This pair has a more compelling dynamic, and the creators clearly know it. As the only non-Latino who also speaks little to no Spanish, Benny is set apart immediately when he’s introduced as a star employee at Rosario’s, which is owned by Nina’s parents. When Nina, the first in her family to attend college, returns home a dropout, having been unable to maintain her grades while working two jobs, she begins to distance herself from her parents and develop a closer relationship with Benny. When Kevin Rosario objects to his daughter dating a non-Latino and Benny subsequently loses his job, the couple erupts and must determine whether a steamy romance or bitter heartbreak lies ahead.

To balance the show’s tense moments, Graffiti Pete and Sonny, played by Mateus Barbosa da Silva and Felipe Cristancho Rodriguez, provide fun, campy comic relief. However, the prize for best comedy duo rightfully goes to the performances of Michelle Alves and Juliana Andrea Betancur as Daniela and Carla. Daniela is the barrio’s main source of gossip and carries herself as if she’s the boss, inside and out of her salon. Her flare for the dramatic — yelling in rapid Spanish when she’s upset — may not be for everyone, but for those of us with relatives like her, Alves’ fiery performance is delightfully uncanny. Almost always accompanied by her simple-minded moral compass Carla, Alves’ Daniela plays off Betancur’s whimsical performance to hilarious effect.

Throughout both acts, several supporting characters are given their moment in the spotlight. The best among them including Rubén Flores soulfully singing Kevin’s “Inutil,” Francisca Muñoz getting her much-deserved moment to sing Camila’s intense “Enough” and Sydia Cedeño moving the audience with Abuela Claudia’s passionate “Paciencia y Fe.” Most shocking to those unfamiliar with In the Heights, when the unnamed shaved ice vendor — Javier Garcia’s part simply listed as Piragua Guy — rolls his cart up to center stage, he proceeds to belt out “Piragua” with the bellowing force of a celebrated opera singer.

This production has a welcome abundance of electrifying numbers with spectacular sights and sounds. In the middle of Act 1, there’s a song with such high production value and mesmerizing choreography, that it may fool audience members into thinking it’s the traditionally big Act 1 finale. And yes, somehow, the final song before intermission, “The Club/Fireworks,” tops everything before it. It even carries into the mid-act break, so there’s no need to be alarmed if police sirens or car alarms are heard during intermission.

The greatest highlight of the show, “Carnaval del Barrio” in Act 2, is where The Gateway proves that community is not just the central theme of In the Heights, it’s a core component of their organization. In the number, the ensemble channels the vivacity of Brazilian Carnaval with a grand display of samba dancing accompanied by the waving of flags from across Latin America. It’s a beautiful moment of pride for any audience members with familial ties to Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil and neighboring countries. And, with the surprise inclusion of a rainbow flag waved by nonbinary actor/assistant dance captain Marina Vidal, it’s a proud moment for the LGBTQ+ community, as well.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. The Gateway has long championed a high level of inclusivity and support for queer individuals, with productions like Kinky Boots and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert focusing on themes of sexuality, gender and acceptance. Even in shows like In the Heights, where such themes are not directly addressed, sharped-eyed audience members are likely to notice same-sex couples and LGBTQ+ representation in the ensembles of many of their productions.

In the Heights is a celebration of Latin American culture, dance and music, offering a variety of Latin-infused genres including showtunes, ballads, rap and dance music. Above all, the production is an uplifting testament to the strength of community — both in this fictional imagining of Washington Heights and at The Gateway.

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Fire Island and Great South Bay News

March 27, 2024 - Cindi Sansone-Braff

The Gateway Playhouse “In the Heights” is the Hottest Ticket in Town

Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda blew the world away with his long-running smash-hit “Hamilton,” he rocked the world with “In the Heights.” This Latin-infused Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, was nominated in 2008 for a whopping 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical.

The play unfolds during a heatwave “at the break of day” on July 3 as a close-knit upper Manhattan community prepares for their workday. The Fourth of July follows with a spectacular fireworks display in the night sky. Independence Day was an apt metaphor for this neighborhood filled with people seeking to escape oppression from the day-to-day struggle to survive. The residents are predominantly immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic; however, during the showstopping tune, “Carnaval del Barrio,” the ensemble danced with flags from many other Spanish-speaking countries around the globe.

The Gateway wisely chose to use the original, Tony-nominated Broadway set design by Anna Louizos. Her architecturally magnificent cityscape captured the timeless aspect of modern urban life. This fantastic set features towering brick tenements with metal terraces, a front stoop to sit on, realistic storefronts with their requisite roll-down security grates, functional streetlights, a working fire hydrant, an entrance to the 181 Street subway on the corner, and the George Washington Bridge looming like a manmade mountain in the background.

The soulful musical pulses, pounds, and gyrates with an eclectic score featuring a vibrant blend of hip-hop, salsa, Latin pop, meringue, samba, rap, and jazz. Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Vincent Ortega, with musical direction by Andrew Haile Austin, The Gateway’s polished-to-perfection production had the entire cast sizzling and popping with electrifying chemistry.

Mateus Barbosa da Silva gave an award-worthy performance as Graffiti Pete. He opens the show by breakdancing and spray-painting graffiti on the side of the bodega. Graffiti Pete eventually redeems himself by creating a memorial with his urban art.

Ryan Alvarado, a masterful performer with stellar vocals, was perfectly cast as Usnavi de la Vega. Alvarado, a veteran Long Island actor, just finished the U.S. National tour of “Hamilton,” where he played the eponymous title role. Alvarado brought charm and depth to his portrayal of Usnavi, the protagonist and narrator of the story. Although Usnavi owns a local bodega, he longs to return to his native home in the Dominican Republic.

Chelsea Zeno was outstanding as Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest. She works at the local unisex salon but dreams of a better life. Zeno’s duet with Alvarado, “Champagne,” was one of the high points of the show.

Felipe Cristancho Rodriguez, a natural-born comedian, was likable as Usnavi’s cocky teenage cousin, Sonny. With his hilarious facial expressions and comic dance moves, Rodriguez received some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Sydia Cedeño gave a riveting performance as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch who emigrated from Cuba, leaving behind everything she once knew and loved. With her charismatic stage presence and powerhouse vocals, Cedeño gave an unforgettable rendition of the tender yet heartbreaking song “Paciencia y Fe.”

Rubén Flores as Kevin Rosario and Francisca Muñoz as Camila, his wife, displayed great onstage chemistry. Alia Munsch gave a standout performance as their daughter, Nina, a college student who just returned home from Stanford University with disappointing news. Muñoz blew the audience away with her powerful vocals during “Enough,” a song in which she painfully revealed her frustration over being a wife and mother forced to mediate between her stubborn husband and strong-willed daughter. Munsch delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of the beautiful ballad “Breathe.” Flores, revealing his character’s softer side, performed a heartrending version of the breathtaking song, “Atención”

Christian Brailsford, a vibrant and dynamic actor, portrayed Benny, the only non-Latino member of the neighborhood. Benny is in love with Nina, and even though her father disapproves, he is determined to win her over. Act II opened on a hot, hot, hot note when Brailsford, shirtless, stepped onto the terrace. The women in the audience audibly oohed and aahed as they visually soaked in his sculpted body. Brailsford and Munsch’s heartfelt duet, “Sunrise,” was another show highlight.

Michelle Alves rocked the role of Daniela, the hot tamale unisex salon owner who delivers an earful of gossip with every cut and blowout. Alves set the stage on fire with her effervescent rendition of the show’s catchiest song, “Carnaval del Barrio.” Juliana Andrea Betancur, as Carla, Daniela’s delightful but dimwitted sidekick, commanded the stage with her charismatic presence and spot-on comedic timing.

Javier Garcia plays Piragua Guy, a likable vendor who spends his days selling flavored shaved ice, barely scraping by ever since Mister Softee invaded his territory. Garcia stole the show with his sassy rendition of “Piragua,” showcasing his strong vocals and smooth Latin dance moves.

The rest of the multi-talented ensemble includes Bryan Ernesto Menjivar as José, Marina Vidal as Yolanda, Emily Anne Goes as Doreen, Stemarciae Bain as Gladys, Manuela Agudelo as Yesenia, Rodolfo Santamarina as Tito, Jorge Echeverria as Julio, Sienna Reefer as Selena, and Pragun Bhardwaj as Domingo. The talented youth players, Emilia Birmelin and Keno Gutierrez, added a touch of innocence and sparkle to the show.

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