While this edition of LAC is on newsstands, I'll be away in Manhattan, but don't be jealous: There's no need to purchase a plane ticket if you want to take a trip to Broadway this weekend. Two Tony-winning hits from the last decade are currently enjoying exceptional local revivals, demonstrating once again that Orlando's theaters can be just as great as any on the Great White Way.
In the Heights, Orlando Shakes
When I first saw In the Heights back in 2010, I wrote that the Broadway tour of Lin-Manuel Miranda's breakout hit left me emotionally frio, with its stilted direction and predictable plot. Similarly, I was among those initially skeptical of Orlando Shakes' foray into presenting musical theater, especially after their disappointing Les Miz. Now, after crying uncontrollably through the second act of their incandescent production of In the Heights (running through Oct. 7), I can finally declare myself a fully fledged fan of both.
Ernie Pruneda, who was in the original Broadway cast of Sister Act, plays bodega owner Usnavi with his heart on his sleeve and Miranda's rhymes trippingly on his tongue. He leads a first-class cast that includes out-of-town professionals (Iliana Garcia as Nina, Deon'te Goodman as Benny, Zach Infante as Sonny) alongside top local talents (Alina Alcántara as Abuela Claudia, Juan Cantú and Leesa Castaneda as Mr. and Mrs. Rosario), including several who starred in GOAT and Baggy Pants' excellent 2015 production.
But beyond the powerhouse performances, two key elements (as elucidated during an opening-night Q&A) drive director Nick DeGruccio's production of In the Heights: authenticity and intimacy. According to costume designer Christopher Vergara, the effort toward authenticity "started with Orlando Shakes, who wanted to be true and tell this story authentically: hiring a cast of Latino artists, having people on both sides, both onstage and on the creative side, who represent the Latinx community." He purchased much of the wardrobe in the real Washington Heights in order to "represent these people and their struggle with dignity, with respect."
The production's electrifying intimacy emanates from the three-quarter thrust staging, which takes a show that assistant director Eric Zivot admits "was conceived for a two-dimensional space, what we euphemistically describe as the TV screen," and "stretch[es] the dynamic of the staging and storytelling to push the players into the heart of the audience." But beyond being the Shakes' most polished presentation in memory, I was most impressed by the passion of the cast and crew. Musical director Josh Ceballos spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, "There's a lot of pressure all around for everybody involved in this production, but we put it on ourselves because we want to make it the best that it can be." I'm pleased to report that their "Paciencia y Fe" has paid off.
God of Carnage, The Abbey
Like In the Heights, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage has made the rounds since its celebrated New York debut a decade ago, appearing locally at Orlando Shakes in 2011 and currently available on Amazon Prime in Roman Polanski's film version. Florida Theatrical's production, which runs through this weekend at the Abbey, remains a savage satire of NYC's supposedly cultured classes circa 2001, like a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the Seinfeld era. But under Kenny Howard's propulsive direction, Carnage has also become a master class in gross-out slapstick, as well as a prescient commentary on the current collapse of civilized norms.
That tripartite balancing act is executed with aplomb by this ensemble of seasoned theme park performers, who prove that Orlando's attractions are every bit as good a comedic proving ground as any Groundlings school. It's folly to pick a favorite among this quartet, but Julie Snyder steals the show as the self-righteous Veronica, slinging silent daggers at her hardware-selling spouse, Michael, played by her real-life husband Michael Carr. "They've gotten along so much better since the show because they can fight on stage and go home," Howard jokes, adding that he'd wanted to work with Snyder since seeing her in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, and was excited to reunite with Carr again after Sordid Lives.
The couple's well-matched antagonists in this rum-soaked battle of wits are Alan (Jerry J. Jobe Jr.), an amoral pharmaceutical attorney, and his weak-stomached wife, Annette (Kari Ringer). Ringer gets the nauseating honor of wrestling with the pneumatic apparatus Alan Ostrander designed for the climactic puking scene. "It is the fifth character, and it is the most variable character, because you're dealing with trajectory," Ringer says of the effect, which boasts an impressively explosive range. "I learned a lot about aerodynamics and p.s.i."
If you've got an ear for brainy banter and a strong gag reflex, God of Carnage delivers the goods.