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

Oh, what a night! Any time you can be joyfully swept up by the catchy hooks and upbeat sounds of the Four Seasons catalog is a good day.

Although the music is the big draw, the personal stories of bandmates Frankie Valli, Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito combine for the irresistible musical “Jersey Boys.” The four lads from New Jersey’s rough-and-tumble journey through the music business is a fascinating rags-to-riches story, the quintessential American Dream tale.

In its Stages St. Louis premiere, the Tony Award winner comes alive in the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center’s intimate staging in the Ross Family Theater. The show runs through Oct. 24.

This can’t-miss combination overflows with energy and charm – and 30 songs, including their chart-topping hits “Sherry” in 1962, “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Who Loves You” and their last number one from 1976, “December 1963: Oh! What a Night!” The group sold 175 million records.

Directed with verve by Stages’ mainstay Michael Hamilton, with input from associate director Gayle Seay and assistant director Christopher Kale Jones, each number is vibrantly staged. Dana Lewis’ choreography is snappy and stylized.

The addition of live music at Stages, with the band perched atop of James Wolk’s grid set design, is a major plus. Music director Jeremy Jacobs kept up a peppy infectious beat with a tight band.

Wolk has efficiently used the space to set up different nooks conveying time and place, from recording studios to Las Vegas, with Sean M. Savoie’s savvy lighting choices expertly enhancing the designs, starting with streetlamps, and moving on to glitzy showbiz venues.

After it opened on Broadway in 2005, the musical became a juggernaut, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actor, Featured Actor and Lighting Design in 2006, and ran until 2017, with multiple resident companies in the U.S. and abroad, in addition to several national tours pleasing crowds for years.

“Jersey Boys” is currently the 12th longest-running Broadway show (4,642 performances in 11 years).

Stages has assembled a very capable quartet of smooth operators who mesh as a group –singing actors Christopher Kale Jones, Brent Michael DiRoma, Jason Michael Evans and Ryan Jesse are funny, appealing, good singers whose harmonizing brings a strong dynamic to the show.

Jones, as indefatigable lead singer Frankie Valli, pours his heart and soul into the role, with a comfortable falsetto and a passionate delivery. His rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” one of the show’s biggest moments, will give you goosebumps. He played Frankie on the first national tour.

Jason Michael Evans is an amusing Nick Massi, the quirky bass player, and he pulls off the deadpan delivery and crisp comic timing required of the role. Brent Michael DiRoma, who was so strong as Jerry in Stages’ “The Full Monty,” brings out the complexities of the swaggering troublemaker guitarist Tommy DeVito. He also had national tour experience, but in other roles.

The songwriting talents and keyboard prowess of young musical genius Bob Gaudio is charismatically portrayed by Ryan Jesse, who performed the role on Broadway and on tour.

Stages’ ensemble adroitly fills in the supporting roles: Edward Juvier is Bob Crewe and others, while Dereis Lambert, Jenna Coker-Jones, Nic Thompson, Brady Miller, Sarah Ellis, Donna Louden, Steve Isom, John Flack, Dena Digiacinto, Trevor James Berger, and Erik Keiser fluidly move the story along. The entire production has a close-knit feel.

They journey through backstage drama, in-fighting, inside show-business wheeling and dealing, and unsavory parts of personal and professional relationships.

Clever book writers Rick Elice and Oscar-winning screenwriter Marshall Brickman presented different points of view and broke the Fourth Wall, where characters talk directly to the audience. It’s a masterful touch.

The vintage outfits from several decades are crafted with flair by resident costume designer Brad Musgrove, who knows how to go way back into the time machine of early rock ‘n roll and sharply dress performers.

Because it resonates so well, “Jersey Boys” remains a blissful experience, a delightful jukebox musical with a smartly constructed book that features humor and heartache – not to mention it’s based on a remarkable true story. And those songs!

It was thrilling to be back together in a theater where you could feel the electric jolt on stage – and in the audience. I’ve seen this show, I think, seven times, and it is always a home run. Performers may be better than others, but such pizzazz. It never gets old.

Show features adult content, so viewer discretion.

“Jersey Boys” runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 24. For information and tickets, visit www.stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407.

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By Lynn Venhaus
Patsy Cline was that rare artist who made a deep connection with anyone who listened to her sing.

A similar effect happens with actresses Diana DeGarmo and Zoe Vonder Haar, who are a delightful combo of sweet and salty, smooth and sassy, silky and spirited, in the jukebox musical “Always…Patsy Cline,” now playing at Stages St. Louis through Sept. 5.

Raised in Georgia and now living in Nashville, DeGarmo has returned to her country music roots in a thoroughly engaging performance.

She sleekly inhabits Cline, who is considered the most popular female country singer in recording history. DeGarmo emulates Cline’s richly textured, emotive voice, and effortlessly delivers 27 numbers, including five with Vonder Haar, who plays Cline’s fan-turned-friend, Louise Seger.

DeGarmo, who was the runner-up on Season 3 of “American Idol” at age 16 in 2004, which Fantasia Barrino, 19, won (a total of 65 million votes were cast for both), has since pursued a music and musical theatre career, appearing on Broadway and in national tours.

Diana DeGarmo as Patsy Cline, Photographed by ProPhotoSTL

Previously in St. Louis, she was impressive as Doralee Rhodes in the first national tour of “9 to 5: The Musical,” which stopped at the Fox Theatre in February 2011, and also at the Fox in 2014 as the Narrator in the revival tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Her husband, Ace Young, was Joseph. (She met Young, who was on American Idol’s fifth season, when they were cast in “Hair” and have been married since 2013).

She is poised and commanding as she interprets one hit song after another, showcasing her range and control. The vocals on the ballads “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams” are particularly lush, tugging on your heart strings.

She has fun changing tempos with the more down-home numbers, such as “Stupid Cupid” and “Shake Rattle and Roll.”

DeGarmo projects an elegance, which is enhanced by Brad Musgrove’s gorgeous vintage costume designs, and she is exquisitely lit by lighting designer Sean M. Savoie.

She has a dynamic chemistry with feisty firecracker Vonder Haar, the veteran fan favorite who has played Louise twice before. Vonder Haar won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for the first time (and would go on to win that same award for Stages’ “The Full Monty” two years later).

It’s a good match. Seger, a colorful Texas housewife, was a devoted fan who first saw Patsy on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in 1957, when she won after singing “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Living near Houston, she attended the singer’s show at the Esquire Ballroom in 1961, and they connected as friends, writing letters and talking on the phone until the singer’s tragic death at age 30 in a plane crash in 1963.

Playwright Ted Swindley fashioned the interviews Seger did for the biographies “Patsy Cline: An Intimate Biography” and “Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline” into the source material for his 1988 two-woman tribute revue, “Always…Patsy Cline,” which is the epitome of a crowd-pleaser. It is licensed by Cline’s family and estate.

Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise Seger, photographed by ProPhotoSTL

From Seger in “Country Weekly”: “The person inside me recognized the person who lived inside her. It was truly eerie.”

Patsy joined Louise and her friends and after the show accepted an invitation to Louise’s home for a late-night breakfast. “It was like I was living in a dream. There was Patsy Cline in my kitchen helping me fix bacon and eggs. She took her shoes off and wore an apron I gave her.

“She told me about her life, her hopes, her dreams. We discussed loves lost, loves found, loves yet to be.

“We talked about her troubled marriage and the pain she endured being away from her children. It was just two people baring their souls.

“We both sang and harmonized old Gospel songs and hillbilly tunes. We sat there and smoked and sang until 4:00 in the morning.”

Louise rushed Patsy to the airport, expecting never to hear from her again. But within two weeks, Louise received her first in what was to be many letters and phone calls they would exchange.

“I often would receive calls at 1:00 in the morning. She’d be singing in some town wanting a friend to talk to.”

Of course, this was 60 years ago, before entertainers had security, a ‘team’ and ‘people.’ It was just two women bonding at a kitchen table.

While Swindley took some poetic license, the story is true – a glamorous celebrity who grew up without privilege and her plain-spoken, music-lovin’ pal.

From the moment she sashays on to scenic designer James Wolk’s vintage 1950s-era kitchen set, Vonder Haar, a St. Louis treasure, is a funny and sincere Louise. She engages the audience as comic relief with her folksy charm, coming across like a neighbor joining you for a kaffee klatch.

This memoir, which opens the theater company’s 35th anniversary year, is the most popular show in Stages’ history. This is the third time it’s being presented, after back-to-back runs in 2013 and 2014, which demonstrates again how endearing and charming it is. It was as warmly received Aug. 11 as it was seven and eight years ago.

The cozy show, first at Stages’ former home at Kirkwood’s Community Center, then moved intact to The Playhouse at Westport Plaza, is opening their new venue, the Kirkwood Center for the Performing Arts. The Ross Family Theatre seats 529 comfortably.

Artistic Director Michael Hamilton has recreated the production, capitalizing on the actress’s strengths. The premise is simple – showing Cline singing at the Grand Old Opry and other locations, with Louise listening to her on the radio, which was a communication lifeline for people back then.

A simpler time, a touch of nostalgia, admiration for a career cut way too short, but spotlighting music that continues to warm hearts to this day.

The lively band, conducted by music director Jeremy Jacobs, who also plays the piano, is an expert blend of Steve Hitsman on steel pedal guitar, Dave Black on electric and acoustic guitars, Kevin Buckley on acoustic guitar and fiddle, Eric Grossman on bass and Joe Meyer on drums. Their tight sound is mighty in an alcove perched behind a scrim.

Original orchestrations for the band and vocals were crafted by August Eriksmoen and Tony Migliore.

While the songs take center stage, the fascinating tale of a close friendship between kindred spirits is what resonates, drawing an audience in, one who welcomes the warm embrace of harmony in music and life.

Diana DeGarmo as Patsy Cline, photographed by ProPhotoSTL

Stages St. Louis presents “Always…Patsy Cline” through Sept. 5, performance times vary, at the Ross Family Theatre inside the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center at 210 Monroe St. ASL interpreting and audio description by MindsEye will be available for the Aug. 20 show. For more information, call 314-821-2407 or visit www.StagesSt.Louis.org. Follow Stages on Facebook and Instagram.