Engeman Theater to new heights
March 22, 2018
By David Ambro
In its 12th season of bringing Broadway to Main Street, the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is coming of age.
Now showing on the main stage at the Engeman Theater is the critically acclaimed Broadway hit In the Heights, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize nominated musical written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote and currently stars in Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway. In the Heights opened at the Engeman Thursday, March 15, the first professional production of the show on Long Island.
“It’s exciting to do a show that people haven’t seen a lot before,” said Richard Dolce, who produced the show and is the theater’s producing artistic director. “That’s what was exciting about [the previous show] Once. People came in having heard about it but it’s not like My Fair Lady or West Side Story where everyone remembers it and has seen it. This is something they have heard of and maybe they have heard of Hamilton, but to experience it and for us to be the people to bring it to them is very satisfying. It’s why I do this.”
Set in a closely knit neighborhood on 183rd Street in the Washington Heights section of the Bronx, In the Heights is a story about a diverse Latino community of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, struggling to improve their lives in America. On the Engeman stage, Spiro Marcos plays the central role of Usnavi, a Dominican immigrant who operates a bodega with his cousin. Sonny, played by Nick Martinez, and under the watchful eye of neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, played by Tami Dahbura. Mr. Marcos is captivating as Usnavi, a role he delivers in rhythmic rap. Mr. Martinez and Ms. Dahbura are terrific in their performances. Sonny warm, funny and engaging and Abuela compassionate and endearing.
A defining moment in the story comes when Abuela dies suddenly during a New York City blackout on a blistering hot July day. Having been raised by Abuela, her death hits Usnavi hard. He decides to give up the bodega, the heart of the neighborhood, and return to his homeland. Central to the plot is romance, Usnavi is enamored by Vanessa, a neighborhood hairdresser played by Chiara Trentalange. Josh Marin plays Benny, an African-American in love with his boss’ daughter, Nina, played by Cherry Torres.
Steeped in the Latino culture and highlighting the struggle of the American melting pot. In the Heights at the Engeman features a deep cast of stars supported by an ensemble that is more than 20 voices strong at times. It is must-see contemporary theater on the Northport stage.
For tickets, go to engemantheater.com, call 631-261-2900 or visit the theater box office at 250 Main Street in Northport village.
In the Heights is told in a mixed dialogue of English and Spanish and a variety of musical styles including Rap, Hip Hop, Salsa, Merengue, Reggaeton, Rock ‘n Roll and traditional Broadway style, all with a Latino beat.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and the guy who is Hamilton, tells a story about his life growing up and he wanted to use the music of his youth and of his culture,” Mr. Dolce said. “[Miranda] is a really big fan of rap and Latin music and a big fan of Broadway so he took this amalgamation of all this different music. There are characters who primarily rap, but there are also a lot of characters who do pretty standard ballads and storytelling and it’s all put together to portray a slice of life in Washington Heights back in the mid to late 2000s.”
“It is so much fun,” Mr. Marcos said during an interview in the lobby after the show. “We have become family. We have only rehearsed for two weeks. This is the third week of rehearsals and it has included five performances. So we are exhausted, but we have all just held each other up and we have all made it a point to tell the story and to do it justice and do it with respect and also share a little bit of our culture with the people of Northport. It is kind of amazing.”
“So I am elated. The show is fun. it’s upbeat, it warms your heart and it is all about the legacies -we leave, and I think this is so important,” he said. “People have to understand that you leave your mark wherever you are, and that is very important to me.”
Mr. Dolce said that because the script is a mix of English and Spanish, a largely Latino cast was selected to bring authenticity to the show. “Obviously, they are trying to be as authentic as possible. Fortunately, we cast actors who are Latino, so they came with their own background and their connection to the material. So it was a matter of the director, choreographer and musical director working with the actors and material to bring out the authenticity.”
“The big thing for me is showing the respect for the Spanish language because it drives the culture of almost half of the people in this country,” Mr. Marcos said. “In wanting to pay respect to the language and doing it justice, sometimes you get people who do parts like this, and they don’t know the language. It’s just them trying to figure it out and learning the words on a page. But for me it is the connection to that world and knowing exactly what I’m saying and how to say it and not just learning the lines. I know exactly what I am saying and not just words on a page, so I can pay respect to this language.”
“Lin-Manuel had a reason for putting that in this show. He had a reason for including it and I think it is so important to respect that decision of his because he is the first one to do it like that,” Mr. Marcos said.
“West Side Story did it back then and I was in West Side Story. I played Bernardo, and it was crazy because in that show they almost bastardized Puerto Rico. They were all ashamed of Puerto Rico and they wanted to get out of Puerto Rico. And this is a show that is celebrating Puerto Rico and it is just amazing that he created something that celebrates Latin American culture when the only time you’re seen it in a show it has been bastardized. And that was a huge, huge inspiration for me.”
While the dialogue is delivered in English and Spanish and the music has an uplifting Latino beat, the choreography is also modern and new to the Engeman.
“It is probably the most modern dance that we have done,” Mr. Dolce said. “It mixes elements of Hip Hop and Break Dancing with traditional Broadway dancing and with Latin musical dancing, Salsa dancing. When we did Memphis and Hairspray it was 50s Rock youth style of dancing. This is more modern. So again, it is exciting to be able to present something like this. That feels fresh, that hasn’t been done.”
“We are thrilled to be able to do the show. It is a fantastic show, and it is a complicated show, but it is one that, now that we are 12 years in, we felt we could handle and our audiences would enjoy,” Mr. Dolce said.
He said the heavy lifting was done by the authors of the script. “The script is there, the music is there. We just had to stay time to it, and just work our actors’ and our directors’ concepts into the story.”
“1 think it is fantastic,” Mr. Dolce said. “I think it’s exciting. I’ve been around the theater for a long time and it is exciting to watch Broadway theater evolve over the years. Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and A Chorus Line and Phantom, Les Miz, and then you got into Rent, and now we have In the Heights and Hamilton, and Next to Normal—you have all of these exciting shows. So it is very exciting for me, as someone who has been there for my entire life, there was a time when I could only produce shows like My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and Sound of Music, and now I feel that audiences are more accepting and receptive to these newer styles of musicals.”
The Engeman’s last production was Once, the most successful show at the box office in the theater’s 12 year history. “Once is very different than typical Broadway, and it was one of my most successful shows,” Mr. Dolce said. “I’m hoping, based on audience reaction tonight, that In The Heights will become another wonderfully successful show and that audiences are excited and receptive to seeing musical theater in a new way, with modem music and different cultures and to disappear into a different world and a different story for two and a half hours.”