Stumptown Stages

‘In the Heights’: Overheated, undercooked

Stumptown Stages' production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical fails to ignite

It’s hot in the Heights. It’s summer, and many of the apartments in Nueva York’s working class Washington Heights neighborhood — home to mix of very different Latino cultures: Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, more — lack air conditioning. Neighbors swelter on stoops, score cafe con leche at the bodega, frequent the salon and the frozen treat vendor.

The heat is on in their lives, too. The family owned taxi company can barely pay its drivers (and this was before Uber!). Nina, the pride of the ‘hood, a smart student who got into Stanford, returns home for the summer sweltering under the pressure of a secret disappointment. Another is falling behind in her rent.

Stumptown Stages' 'In the Heights' closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

Stumptown Stages’ ‘In the Heights’ closes this weekend at Brunish Theater.

That’s the colorful, heated world of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical,  whose sold-out run ends May 1 at Portland5’s Brunish Theater. Miranda’s affectionate evocation of the neighborhood next door to the one he grew up in, along with its authentically multicultural musical mashup of salsa, hip hop and more, immerses the audience in a richly evoked world we want to know more about.

One of the first musicals to successfully bring hip hop to Broadway, In the Heights (which collected four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, not to mention a smattering of Olivier Awards for a British run) sometimes pulls it off so adeptly that it makes me wonder what took so long (well, not really — much of American theater until very recently has been effectively an apartheid zone) to bring this powerfully musical style to theater. Rap’s hardly much of a leap from other musicalized theater-speech, from recitative to sprechstimme, singspiel to Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs. The hip hop elements here evoke the Heights in our ears just as Demetri Paviatos’s vibrant set does for our eyes.

But like other shows, from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene to David Hare’s recent Behind the Beautiful Forevers,  this one focuses so much on limning a world that it fails to tell a compelling story. Miranda embarked on In the Heights when he was a college sophomore at the beginning of this century, and as with many first plays or novels or symphonies, its creator’s attempt to cram everything he loves about the ethnically diverse upper Manhattan neighborhood (which he even covered as a student journalist for a summer) leaves too little time or room to sufficiently develop any of its characters and their stories.


Fertile Ground review: Welcome to the Night Side

Smart creative team makes "The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick" an entertaining ride


Riddle: Who’s in charge of Night Side? That shady town full of werewolves and vampires, creeps and ghouls accessible from our “normal” world only by wily private eyes like Dex Dixon, Manix Marloe and Carl Kolchak, The Night Stalker?

Answer: Why, Frank, the ventriloquist benevolent puppet dictator.

That revelation comes early in Stumptown Stages’ dizzily entertaining new musical about an aging paranormal private eye, premiering at Portland’s Brunish theater as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival. “Filled with puns, guns, vixens, vamps, monsters, music, and mayhem,” the debut run ends today, Sunday, January 31.

Our guide to Night Side, Dex Dixon, is played by Steve Coker, who also wrote the book for The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick, designed the scenes, shared the task of writing the music and lyrics with K.J. McElrath, acted the part. He is also the artistic director of Stage Works Ink. If that isn’t enough to get him elected mayor of Portland then I’m stumped!

But Coker is only part of an exceptional creative team whose combined efforts made Dex Dixon one of Fertile Ground’s most captivating shows.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in "The Adventures of Dex Dixon." Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Ilya Torres-Garner and Steve Coker in “The Adventures of Dex Dixon.” Photo: Mike Lindberg.

Jaime Langton’s witty choreography flowed seamlessly between those with less dance experience like the Vamps (cute little foot twists in “Surrender”) and Dixon and his trusty sidekick werewolf, Lobo (some sweet soft shoe in “Old Dog, New Tricks”) to the veteran dancer playing Nelly, the dangerous dame who sizzles in “Frisk Me, Dex.” More than just well thought out dance steps was the caricature imparted to the dancers and dances. Sydney Weir’s Nelly captured the pretzeled bodied zombie I’ve never seen in a zombie flick but completely believed. Weir isn’t just a clean crisp dancer, she’s a physical actor imbuing Langton’s choreography with over-the-top personality. She crossed and uncrossed her dangerous-dame legs sleazier than Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. And I mean this in a good way. Two more dance reasons to get you to this show: “The Brainsucker Tango” and the the monster mash between the Weres and the Zombies in “Dex in Danger.”

DD uses a live jazz club quartet prominently displayed visually and aurally. And aural is where the show breaks down. I sat on both sides of the stage and missed about half the lines and even more of the lyrics. Mixing is only partly the reason. A muffled dull speaker system the other. I don’t recall this being an issue in the last musical I saw in this space, or maybe I was so bored by the banal lyrics I tuned out. Dex Dixon, however, is predicated on delicious “Danger Dame At Work” (by Paul Muller) pulp-poetry and puns. Care needs to be given to the audience experience: Are we ALL catching every one of those lines, asides, lyrics?


Worn-out laughs at the trailer park

Stumptown's "Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" gets bogged down in cheap put-downs and sodden jokes


In comedy circles, nobody gets made the butt of the joke more readily than American Southerners, especially in the North. It’s an easy laugh – so easy that it can be both lazy and sloppy.

A good comic can make it work. When Jon Stewart, famous and former host of the satirical Daily Show, gave us Florida Man, the idea that there’s a mashup of Aileen Wuornos the prostitute-turned-serial killer and Ezra “Penny” Baxter the native-swamp-citizen-full-of-mistrust-for-nature out in the poor man’s version of Louisiana didn’t seem farfetched. News reports continue to support this stereotype. But, let’s be fair: there are places in the South that are poorer than most, but no region of the nation can’t say the same.

From left: Andy Mangels as Jackie; Kelly Stewart as Pickles; Sherrie Van Hine as Betty; Elizabeth Hadley as Darlene; Sheila Bruhn as Lin; Steve Coker as Rufus. Photo: Paul Fardig

From left: Andy Mangels as Jackie; Kelly Stewart as Pickles; Sherrie Van Hine as Betty; Elizabeth Hadley as Darlene; Sheila Bruhn as Lin; Steve Coker as Rufus. Photo: Paul Fardig

David Nehis and Betsy Kelso wrote The Great American Trailer Park Musical a few years back and have followed up with a holiday version, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, which has now opened in Portland at Stumptown Stages.

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical doesn’t ask much of its audience: mostly, it’s just a mean-spirited joke. Plenty of recent works look into the political and social tensions that make up the mosaic of American culture. But it becomes apparent by the second act of this musical that the composers and writers had little experience with the characters they wrote, and as much, no insight that would bring out the real the purpose of comedy: to make a truthful, if comical, story that shows something of our common humanity as it entertains.


Scary Carrie, a fright for our times

Stumptown Stages' musical version of the Stephen King tale gets uncomfortably contemporary: mayhem in the schools


The leaves are turning toward autumn. Hybrid pumpkins fill our porches, and Portland’s moving toward its inevitable bunkering-down for winter. The usual ghost stories are popping up to haunt us as Halloween approaches, and right on cue, Stumptown Stages has put on Carrie: The Musical for us.

Does anything scare us today that deals with death?

Not all theater has a message, but the advice underlying Carrie: the Musical is clear: never let your high school gym teacher try to save your miserable existence. It’ll begin with fake bloodshed, move on to misguided telekinesis, and end in double murder.

Stumptown's "Carrie": It's a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Stumptown’s “Carrie”: It’s a bloody massacre. Photo: Paul Fardig

Soon after Stephen King’s breakthrough novel became a bestseller in 1974, the first version of the musical was workshopped by Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the screenplay for the hit 1976 movie), Michael Gore (no puns here) and Dean Pitchford. Cohen, interviewed by the New York Times, said that if Alban Berg, the avant-garde composer of the opera Lulu, were composing at the time of this material, Carrie would be the plot he’d mine for inspiration. This trivia provides the platform for Carrie: The Musical. A playwright, librettist, and composer tried to take the old-fashioned fairytale of Cinderella and push it to a supernatural and psychotronic end. As the saying goes: “It’s all fun and games, until someone gets an eye poked out.” One wonders, why didn’t Cohen, following a dubious line of creative choices, take his inclination to the next level and make a musical of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!, or dig from Hammer Films? At the end of the day, though, Cohen, Gore and Pitchford were correct: the idea of Carrie was worth the effort.

Carrie: The Musical sings out with reminders of the stage musical Flashdance, for which Pitchford wrote the lyrics. In a similar context, Carrie’s gym teacher is the first person to be sympathetic to her, to show her a door to the outside world. The next decades of Disney films would take their cue from his popular score, and the public would give in to the familiar sound: less like a traditional musical, more like an pop-operetta. The orchestration of the choruses doesn’t follow the typical musical line. There’s a little Mozart in here: antagonist in minor, protagonist in major, and it makes a sonic harmony between an odd libretto: “Men are demons of romance,” or, “Cheesy, but nice.” There’s  choreography to Carrie: The Musical, but it’s not ballet or dancing in the classic musical-theater structure. Which brings us back to the point: Carrie is meant to be a serious production. We’re all in a postmodern candy shoppe, where metaphor is how we connect.


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