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:

Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus

A stand-up-and-cheer musical that makes the most of its moves and moments, “The Karate Kid The Musical” is a triumph for Stages St. Louis.

With its inspirational underdog storyline and a multi-generational, universal appeal that transcends a formula 1984 movie script, the musical version takes those familiar beats and capitalizes on the warm glow of nostalgia.

Perhaps against all odds, this slick production genuinely connects to an audience, wearing its heart of gold on its gi.

With its impeccable technical elements and a captivating East meets West aura, director Amon Miyamoto has polished this big-deal show to dazzle with crisp movements, stunning scenic and lighting designs, and a seamless flow – despite a long first act.

For those who haven’t seen “The Karate Kid” film from 1984, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Mr. Miyagi and made such catch phrases as “Wax on, wax off” and “You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity” popular, viewing it isn’t a prerequisite.

The message of using your head and heart, not fists, to win in life, is evergreen.

This world premiere, with its winsome Miyagi-verse a major factor, runs through June 26 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. 

Where it lands after that depends on what’s referred to as “a pre-Broadway tryout,” which means it is a work in progress. For now, it is in a first-reaction phase, and what we see here might not be the completed licensed material.

The simple premise is thus: Widowed mom and her teenage son move from New Jersey to Southern California, and while she has a good job, the Italian kid with the Jersey accent doesn’t fit in with the surfer crowd. 

Daniel LoRusso becomes a target of elitist punks who train at the same high-intensive karate school – the Cobra Kai dojo. Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawa-born maintenance man-gardener, happens to be a martial arts master and trains him to fight in an all-valley tournament a few months away.

While the movie has a distinctively ‘80s signature, not unlike “Footloose,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Fame” and “Risky Business” back in the day, it has become a pop culture classic, as much known for Mr. Miyagi’s words of wisdom as the iconic “crane’ move. (And that big moment prompts more cheers).

The movie is credited with launching renewed interest in martial arts from American youth, sparking a franchise with two more sequels (1986 and 1989, a 1994 reboot “The New Karate Kid” and the television series, “Cobra Kai,” now on Netflix and about to start its fifth season on Sept. 9.

The musical’s book is adapted by screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, who based the original film in part on his own experiences. 

In broad strokes, Kamen capitalizes on the key pieces – mother and son starting a new life, teenage boy not fitting into the California coastal milieu, the maintenance man who becomes a father figure, and the David vs. Goliath battle royale.

What is new is that the musical is framed as Mr. Miyagi’s memory, thus we return to the 1980s, and the journey of how he and Daniel developed a deep bond. 

Musical composer and lyricist Drew Gasparini obliges with numbers that fit into the framework, stripping the action down to basics: “California Dream,” “Square One,” “I Want to Know What You Know,” and the finale sentiment, “Stronger Than Before.”

The unorthodox training is captured in “Method to His Madness” and the epiphany breakthrough “Balance.”

A striking sense of rhythm is noteworthy throughout every ensemble number, with vibrant, precise choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid that uniquely stands out. A mix of modern hip-hop and traditional, cultural Far East dance, it is extraordinary in execution. 

It’s rare that a big, splashy musical number receives a standing ovation midway through the first act, but the bravado of “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy” was a showstopper that prompted many in the opening night crowd to leap from their seats in enthusiastic applause.

Alan H. Green, who plays the brutal taskmaster John Kreese, had the crowd at his first snarl and it’s a fierce performance as the unsavory ‘win at all costs’ sensei.

By the time his ruthlessness is revealed, “The Whole World Will Be Watching,” to end act one, hints at danger ahead in Act 2, fueling anticipation for the big showdown.

Credit goes to the engaging ensemble – a mix of seasoned pros and energetic young performers, for their contributions to Stages meeting this moment.

Cardoza is the lynchpin here – charming and earnest, and all the relationships hinge on his likability as Daniel. He develops a palpable bond with Mr. Miyagi – Jovanni Sy in an unforgettable heart-tugging performance.

And that connection burrows into our hearts. 

Daniel and his mother, Lucille, played by the wondrous Kate Baldwin, a two-time Tony nominee, are at different crossroads, which they express clearly in songs. 

Baldwin showcases a sweet, well-trained soprano in “Doing Something Right” and a soulful “If I Could Take Away His Pain.”

No stranger to St. Louis, she won a St Louis Kevin Kline Award for her performance as Maria in The Muny’s 2005 staging of “The Sound of Music.”

The standard love triangle between Ali, her ex Johnny Lawrence and Daniel sets up the bigger issues with the bully (Jake Bentley Young fine in the thankless one-note role). 

As a girl with gumption, Jetta Juriansz puts some oomph into the stock love interest part, and her songs “Who I’m Supposed to Be” and “What Comes Next.”

As Daniel’s new pal Freddy, Luis-Pablo Garcia is a real charmer, and capably leads “Dreams Come True.”

Music Director Andrew Resnick’s strong arrangements are another noteworthy element, as is John Clancy’s orchestrations. 

It is evident that all the technical parts came together in such a high level, indelible way as to mesmerize. The black and red imagery is bold and impressive.

With its angles and moving doors, windows and walls, the stunning set design by Tony winner Derek McLane is one of the finest ever executed here – and another reason to wax rhapsodic. So is Tony winner Bradley King’s exceptional lighting design. 

With its snappy pace and mostly upbeat score, “The Karate Kid – the Musical” turns into a fun time meant to be shared with a pumped-up crowd, not unlike other classic feel-good sports stories “Rocky,” “Rudy” and “American Underdog.”

Obviously, this is a production with an unabashed gooey center, and say what you will, delivered as promised, bringing much comfort and joy to a wildly enthusiastic audience. 

After all, “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything.”

Stages St Louis presents “The Karate Kid – The Musical” from May 25 to June 26 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit www. 

Portions of this review appeared in the June 17 issue of the Webster-Kirkwood Times.