By Lynn Venhaus

A jubilant celebration of culture, community, and connection, “In the Heights” is a warm embrace emphasizing the meaning of home.

This Stages St. Louis production sizzles with its scrupulous staging and splendid ‘triple-threat’ cast. Director Luis Salgado, whose heart is big as the George Washington Bridge in New York City, makes the show ‘pop’ with his spirited direction and vibrant choreography.

The ensemble makes its mark individually — impressive as personalities but they come together as a whole, with a spark that lights up the stage like Fourth of July fireworks.

From the uplifting title song that introduces the cast, they will quickly endear because of their characters’ devotion to their friends and family, sharing heartwarming stories and creating a tapestry in their little corner of the world.

This version’s brilliant burst of energy is because of Salgado’s inspiration and his unwavering commitment to the musical that began 15 years ago. His effusive motto “Dare to go beyond” is apt here.

As a performer and emerging choreographer, Salgado was involved in the original work – with 118 performances off-Broadway in 2007 and nearly 1,000 on Broadway (2008-2010). He was assistant to three-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights,” “Hamilton,” “Bandstand”).

Amanda Robles, Marlene Fernandez and Ariana Valdes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Blankenbuehler had brought Salgado on board to give authenticity to the show’s movements and to help bring the creative team’s vision to life. He described Salgado as “passionate” and “inventive.”

Their mutual admiration society has resulted in Salgado using Blankenbuehler’s original choreography on the sensational ensemble numbers “In the Heights,” “96,000,” “Blackout” and “Finale.”

However, Salgado isn’t the only original connection involved at Stages.

Anna Louizos, Tony nominee for the show’s scenic design, designed the Ross Family Theatre’s richly textured set, creating the Washington Heights neighborhood that comes alive in a stunning recreation inside the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

This is an ideal setting for such an exuberant group sharing their hopes while struggling with everyday realities. “In the Heights” takes place over the course of three days, during a blistering summer heat wave in the barrio, which is on the brink of change.

Creator of the historic and cultural phenomenon “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical in 2009 was special because it had a specific sense of place and resonated with a universal story about people chasing their dreams.

Manuel honored his Latin heritage and cultural traditions as an American whose parents came from Puerto Rico, growing up in Washington Heights (where he still lives). He included the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, and Caribbean Islands as origins, too.

The pulsating score is a hybrid of Latin, urban, hip-hop and salsa beats but also features touching ballads. Miranda was the first composer to put hip-hop lyrics in a Broadway show — and the youngest to win the Tony for Best Music Score in 2009.

Ryan Alvarado grew on me as the hard-working, good-hearted Usnavi de la Vega, the owner of a local bodega who dreams of selling the store and moving to a tropical place where he feels he can be happy. He’s the lynchpin to all the action swirling around him.

Tami Dahbura as Abuela Claudia. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

His confidante, Abuela Claudia, who dispenses advice – and love – to the neighborhood denizens, is the heart and soul of the show, and Tami Dahbura stood out in her heart-tugging numbers, “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith) and “Hundreds of Stories.”

Isabel Leoni as Nina and Amanda Robles as Vanessa are high points, showcasing their outstanding voices. You feel a connection with their characterizations immediately.

Nina, the golden girl who landed a scholarship at Stanford University, was a role model for many but now she is disappointed with herself and feels she let everyone down. She delivers a poignant “Breathe” and a sentimental tribute “Everything I Know” with much passion.

Usnavi’s crush, hairdresser Vanessa, is someone who sees moving to Manhattan as a steppingstone to a better life. Robles soars in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” joined by Alvarado, who clearly wears his heart on his sleeve, and the whirlwind Luis-Pablo Garcia as his cousin Sonny.

Robles, Alvarado, Garcia. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

While the robust and oh-so-catchy “96,000” is Usnavi’s big number dreaming about winning the lottery, Robles shines in her part. Closer to the finale, Robles and Alvarado have sweet, tender and funny moments in “Champagne.”

The most moving song of all is “Alabanza” (Praise) in honor of Abuela Claudia, such love and respect expressed. It just may bring a tear to your eye.

Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote the musical’s original book, and it’s noteworthy regarding all the strong women role models, including Camila, Kevin’s wife and partner in a car service business, in addition to Abuela Claudia, Nina, Vanessa, hairdresser Carla and salon owner Daniela.

Tauren Hagans excels in her two solo numbers “Siempre” (Always) and “Enough” as Nina’s strong mom Camila, and the four younger women have fun with “No Me Diga” (You Don’t Say!).

 Jahir Lawrence Hipps is impressive as Benny, who works for Nina’s intense dad Kevin (Edward Juvier). But when he falls in love with Nina, that’s another story.

Leoni and Hipps. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The duets featuring Hipps and Leoni are lovely – especially “When the Sun Goes Down” and they superbly lead the company on “When You’re Home” and “Sunrise.”

Juvier, a Stages veteran, with a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2017 and a nominee in “My Fair Lady” in 2014, was Bob Crewe in “Jersey Boys” last summer.

As the demanding dad Kevin, he showcases his vocal prowess in “Inutil” (Useless) and “Atencion” (Attention).

Comical relief is welcome when crowd-pleasers Cristian Rodriguez as Graffiti Pete and Michael Schimmele as Piragua Guy are on stage, as well as the salon’s Carla, firecracker Marlene Fernandez, and Ariana Valdes as the animated owner Daniela, who leads the buoyant “Carnaval del Barrio” (Neighborhood Carnival).

Fernandez, Schimmele and Valdes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

And Garcia, who was memorable as Freddy in “The Karate Kid – The Musical,” is in a league of his own, as cheerful chatterbox Sonny, stealing practically every scene he’s in, eliciting laughs every time he’s on stage.

The sprightly ensemble includes Tavis Kordell Cunningham, Mauricio Villanueva Espinosa, Carmen Guynn, Sarah Hampton, Paola Hernandez, Karma Jenkins, Ricco Martin Jr., Jovany Ramirez, Joey Rosario and Carlita Victoria.

Music Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy keeps the tempo lively and brings out the emotional sincerity in the ballads, using the arrangements and orchestrations of Tony winner Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman.

As the conductor and a keyboard player, McCoy has a dynamic orchestra that flavors the Latin score with their expert musicianship in strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Trumpet player Chris Miller brings such a great sound to “The Club/Fireworks” while the percussion’s driving beat is such a treat. Ovations for McCoy, Miller, associate music director and bass Alerica Anderson, Sean Andrews on second keyboard, Travis Mattison on guitar, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Evan Palmer on trombone, Charles “Chuck” Smotherson on drums and Peter Gunn on percussion.

Hagans and Juvier. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Bethany “Beef” Gratz’s sound design is exceptional — smooth and crystal-clear, capturing not only three generations of rhythms but the ambiance of the neighborhood.

Costume Designer Brad Musgrove outfits the vivacious residents in casual, colorful summertime attire, with a few dress-up glam looks, while Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design is a striking enhancement on the day’s progression and the nighttime worries. 

Salgado’s joy regarding the material infuses the entire production, as he moves things at a vigorous pace from well-staged big numbers to intimate emotional scenes. Special mention to assistant director and associate choreographer Bryan Ernesto Menjivar and dance captain Megan Elyse Fulmer, for this show is a terrific example of teamwork and collaboration.

This uplifting show had me on my feet and humming the songs afterwards, putting the cast album back on rotation at home. If anything can change a mood, it is this 23-song collection and this exciting ensemble that aims for the heart and has us at “Hola!”

Amanda Robles as Vanessa. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Stages St. Louis presents “In the Heights” from July 22 to Aug. 21 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood, Mo. Performances take place in the Ross Family Theatre. For more information: www.stagesstlouis.org

Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Science Fiction, meet Musical Comedy, New Line Theatre-style, with a touch of Midnight Movie Madness.
Artistic Director Scott Miller co-directs musicals with Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and has certainly proven over the years that he beats to a different drummer. Hence, this calling card — an original and clever “The Zombies of Penzance,” where he makes the walking dead kick in a chorus line and put moves on sheltered single ladies.
These silly components make this quirky world premiere a dip into Monty Python territory. Miller has substituted singing and dancing zombies for musical comedy pirate characters, using the same structure of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, which makes it funnier. It may be one-joke, but it’s laugh-out-loud fun.

Turns out zombies have personalities in sync with pirates! Stranger things have happened, so just go with it, and enjoy the playful spirit. I mean, songs have titles like “Eat Their Flesh,” “Poor Walking Dead,” and “Hail, Zombies!” We can’t be serious, no matter how straight the characters play their predicaments.
The 1879 comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” by the British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, was given new life in a Joseph Papp 1981 revival that won Kevin Kline the Tony as the swashbuckling Pirate King. It spawned many imitations and parodies, and a 1983 feature film. Here, you think of both those cartoonish roles and the roaming zombies that rule movie and TV screens, particularly this time of year.
The flimsy 19th century plot should be played for laughs – Frederic, 21, is released from his apprenticeship from tender-hearted pirates, but a technicality – he is a Leap Day baby — means he must serve another 63 years, but his true-love Mabel agrees to wait. We’re not talking “The Great Gatsby” level tragic romance.
Now, New Line has rewired the “Slave of Duty” to be a fresh zombie! Frederic is a new flesh eater, a pawn in the other zombie maneuvers as they aim their mark on Major-General Stanley and his nubile brood.
Let the wackiness ensue with Miller’s smart book and quick-witted lyrics, using Gilbert’s template. Listen carefully for laugh-out-loud humor, utilizing contemporary snarkiness.
St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes reconstructed Sullivan’s music, and it’s a mighty fine re-working. In music director Nicolas Valdez’s capable hands, he conducts a snazzy nine-piece band, including Gerdes on French horn, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Joseph Hendricks on bassoon, Emily Trista Lane on cello, Twinda Murry on violin and Kely Austermann/Hope Walker on reeds. Valdez is on keyboards. Their efforts are exquisite – love those strings!
Dowdy-Windsor, an oft-nominated director with Miller for St. Louis Theater Circle Awards (and winner for “Bonnie & Clyde”), also has a keen eye and sharp attention to detail.
The pair has moved the cast around – you hear the flesh-eaters before the heavily made-up zombies shamble through the audience to the Stanley home. Yet, this is not intended to be slick staging, but a motley crew invasion with a rag-tag feel.
Those dastardly decaying dudes have their eyes on Stanley’s bevy of beauties. However, Major-General Stanley, who professes to be a zombie, is actually a great zombie hunter.
Zak Farmer is as sharp as ever as the fearless father, but what stands out is his impeccable delivery of the difficult songs, particularly the often parodied “Major-General’s Song,” which is now “Modern Era Zombie Killer,” and “When the World Went Bad.” His impressive performance indicates how deceptively hard farcical fun is.
The charade will be up soon enough, but in the meantime, romantic entanglements are on the minds of those frisky young ones, who wish they were not at a disadvantage.
Dominic Dowdy-WindsorWith his strong voice, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor delivers superb vocals as the Zombie King, including the solo “Oh Better Far, to Live as Dead,” and his many duets and company numbers. Given the confines of the part, he can’t swashbuckle like the role model Pirate King, and I wish he could have more swagger.
Sean Michael and Melissa FelpsSean Michael, as the dullard Frederic, and Melissa Felps, as a rather colorless Mabel, are saddled with a drippy romance that’s the show’s centerpiece. Voices are fine and so is their earnestness, but those roles remain insipid. Their lack of chemistry doesn’t help either. (The 1981 revival starred Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt).
So, the supporting cast’s efforts enliven the puffy piece.
The ladies play the giggly girly magnets up to a point, then reveal they’re no helpless ingenues. That’s a nice twist.
With Lindsay Jones as Kate, Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel and Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak and Sarah Porter as other daughters, you knew they weren’t going to be powder puffs, but amp up their grrrl power. Armed already with gorgeous voices, they are demure to a point, but then turn into warrior princesses.
Kent Coffel goes all in as Zombie Sam, playing everything for laughs – and he’s a delight. Other goofy zombies Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki and Kyle Kelesoma physically turn into animated creatures.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert paid homage to George A. Romero, director of the 1968 cult classic, “The Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of zombie lore,  in his ornate home interior, a cool touch. The set has the period look, but also a show within a show accents.
Costume designer Sarah Porter has outfitted everyone in appropriate garb for the tonal shifts — the frilly feminine dresses and petticoats for the girls and the natty Zombie attire for the guys. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design emphasizes the bewitching tone while Ryan Day’s sound work makes all those fast-paced lyrics easily understood.
These zombies might not terrify, after all, but they certainly provide a fun, frothy look in a lighter vein — at both vintage opera and the horror archetypes who proliferate this time of year. Barbara, they are coming — only armed with songs, dances and feelings.
One can’t resist the pull of brainy and talented people who set out for a road not taken before.
“The Zombies of Penzance” is presented by New Line Theatre Sept. 27 – Oct. 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Arts Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com and for tickets, call 314-534-1111 or go to MetroTix.com
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg