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MANILA, Philippines – 32-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda arrived in Manila for his first visit near midnight on Wednesday, March 14, and he bounded into our interview Thursday with energy and enthusiasm, showing no signs of jet-lag.
“That’s my default,” said Miranda.
That energy seems to be his trademark. He wrote In the Heights when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan College in 2000. A Filipina classmate, Aileen Payumo, played the lead role of Nina in the first production.
“I have been hearing about the Philippines for years,” said Miranda. “I can’t wait for all of it: the nature, the people, and, of course, seeing the Manila production of In the Heights.”
The musical shows what fuses people together and forges a community’s dreams in the midst of individual struggles for identity and independence. It is about dealing with change and choosing which traditions you evolve and which ones you leave behind.
In the Heights (music and lyrics by Lin-Mauel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 2008. Fusing Latin, hip-hop, soul and rap, the show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including Best Musical.
Miranda won a Tony Award when he was 28 years old and a Grammy at 29. He also played the lead role of Usnavi on Broadway.
Singer Nyoy Volante plays Usnavi in the Manila production. Prior to the Friday show, Volante said he was feeling tremendous pressure, knowing the actor and creator would be watching.
Last year, Atlantis Productions staged In the Heights’ first international production here in Manila. Director Bobby Garcia handled every element of production masterfully, giving his Hispanic Washington Heights neighborhood a distinctly Filipino flavor.
I have seen most of Bobby Garcia’s productions through the years, watching him grow as he fuses what he learned from the West with his Filipino core and sensitivity. He has challenged – and helped change – Filipino definitions of musical theater from the time he directed Rent (about young artists living with HIV/AIDS and death) to Next to Normal (about a woman who struggles with bipolar disorder and its impact on her family). He is working on his first West End musical – one he is developing and directing called Sacrifice (www.sacrificeworldwide.com).
Garcia assembled a powerhouse cast for In the Heights in last year’s run, a mix of theater stalwarts and tv crowd-drawers who reached new heights.
Canadian-Filipino and MYX VJ K-la Rivera gave an eye-opening performance in her first threater production. Her pristine voice and nuanced performance was riveting as Nina, the overachieving student who dropped out of Stanford University, buckling under the pressure of working two jobs – her attempt to be independent and ease the financial pressure on her parents. She’s evenly matched by Felix Rivera, who played Benny, her ambitious boyfriend who works for her parents. This was one of his best performances so far, emotionally real yet understated.
Jackie Lou Blanco as Camila, Nina’s mother, has only one solo but delivers a showstopper – a powerful tour de force of the balance a woman must find between fighting to be heard in decisions with her husband and chastising her daughter for not asking for help and disrespecting her father. Blanco’s song is musically difficult, but her powerful voice and acting pierced through and took the audience through a lifetime struggle with her husband and daughter, ending by – of course – uniting them. Calvin Millado, who played her husband, Kevin, showed the dilemma of the provider, who was ready to sacrifice all he’s built to give his daughter the opportunities he never had.
Finally, there was Nyoy Volante as Usnavi, the epitome of the immigrant’s life, reaching for his dreams and his love, Vanessa, played for former Miss Saigon Ima Castro. Volante was a natural at rap: his performance was unadorned and sincere, making the stage an intimate extension, bringing the audience into the world of the play. He was another revelation. Again, he is evenly matched by Castro, whose voice reached soaring notes effortlessly. That was one of the things that stood out in the production I saw: not one note was out of place. The pitch-perfect production made each song a mini-rollercoaster that moved the wider arc of the musical forward and captured the audience from beginning to end.
On Friday, the curtain rose, with the cast reprising their roles with its Broadway creator and lead actor watching them from the audience.
Here’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interview with Rappler.
You can watch In the Heights at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati. It runs until March 25, 2012. For tickets, call Atlantis Productions at 892-7078 or 840-1187. – Rappler.com
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