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Paca Productions: In The Heights - Review by Benjamin Oliver

Updated: Feb 8

As a proud Latino man, I was stoked when I got the opportunity to come up to the Concourse Theatre in Chatswood to watch “In the Heights,” presented by Paca Productions. This show has always had a special place in my heart, and I have always loved singing and rapping along to the songs that exude the incredible culture and heritage of Latin American people.

The heartfelt story of living life in the ‘barrio’ and the importance of communities and families was consistent throughout the production and made for enjoyable viewing.

Henry Lopez (Usnavi) attempts to tackle one of the most versatile roles in theatre with boldness and swagger as he not only sings but raps and puts on a hot move on the stage, clearly demonstrating his acting training. He should be commended for his efforts, especially with it being his musical theatre debut! He swoons over Natalie Johnson (Vanessa), who shows off her clear prowess for Latin dance in addition to belting vocals while being lifted up in the air! Not an easy feat at all!

For me, the pairing that I couldn’t take my eyes off of and who had my heart the entire time were Andrew Read (Benny) and Danika Rojas (Nina). They brought such maturity and professionalism to both of their roles and handled some of the most vocally demanding songs in the show with ease!

Wrapping up the squad of ‘the boys’ are Lachlan Ceravolo (Sonny) and Nik Zielinski (Graffiti Pete). Zielinski commanded the stage with his presence and sick dance moves from top to bottom, while Ceravolo showcased that his musical theatre experience was not something to scoff at! He clearly and strongly delivered each line, song, and dance move with flair and that little bit of theatre magic which made his portrayal of the character new and refreshing to watch.

The salon ladies always brought the tea, the drama, and of course, the laughs with them whenever they graced the stage with their presence. Fernanda Murialdo (Carla) made me keel over with laughter on multiple occasions, and Belén Johnson (Daniela) brought SUCH confidence to her performance that I could NOT look away… ever! Carnaval Del Barrio was a particular win for Johnson as she dominated the stage and got the whole cast and audience going, which is not an easy feat.

The adult characters in the cast were also ones to watch as they each brought their own approaches and styles to their characters. Irene Toro (Abuela) showcased her abilities as a triple threat, busting moves that I wish my abuela could crack out! Whenever Carlos Galindo (Piraguero) came onstage, I had a smile on my face because his character was so pivotal yet so funny at the same time, and hey, who doesn’t love a good piragua?

Ivan Amaro and Paulina Johnson (Kevin and Camila Rosario) convincingly portray a great family dynamic, with a sacrificial father who loves his family with all his heart and a head-of-the-household mother who wants the best for everyone. Particular commendation to Johnson, who managed to have the best accent in the show, being so crisp that I could still understand every single word regardless of where I was seated.

That being said, there were a few issues that took me out of my little Latin American fantasy that this show transported me to. Some performers struggled to find their light, meaning that I wasn’t able to see their gorgeous faces when their solo moments counted, and some accents were also dropped, leading to some Aussie accents slipping into the mix.

Speaking of the lighting, Blake Williams was able to captivate the audience with his ingenious use of lighting, such as having a recurring sunrise/sunset motif on the back scythe throughout the duration of the show, and the firework surprise… but I won’t give that one away; you’ll have to go and see that one for yourself!

Oliver Brighton and Rachel Wee work together well to ensure that all cast members are heard, despite the mix being occasionally a bit overwhelming in volume, causing some parts to be lost. I love the ways that they have rigged it up so that the ensemble parts can be clearly heard even when not present onstage. So crisp and clear!

Co-Directors and Musical Directors Rodrigo Medina Noël and William Pulley should be commended on this production for all of the above reasons and more! The set was simple yet effective, and Erica Williams aided them in having some of the most fun costumes which added a level of flair to the overall performance. The horns section was the cleanest one that I have heard in any musical production EVER, which as a trumpet player is not something I say often. Flawless! In addition to that, the harmonies from the cast were clearly present in almost every song and showcased the hard work that this company has put in to deliver the show.

From start to finish, the thing that captured my attention constantly and never ceased to amaze me was the choreography. Co-choreographers Janina Hamerlock and Alex Ocampo flawlessly incorporate a range of styles, from simple ballroom basics to complex lifts and jazz routines that suit all of the cast members’ abilities. The execution was perfection and genuinely left me raving with joy as I left the theatre.

All in all, the joy and passion infused into the cast’s overall performance made my heart sing with pride! I give this show 3.5 ice-cold piraguas out of 5.

Photos courtesy of Grant Leslie Photography

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