by Clark Groome
The 2013-2014 Philadelphia Theater season opened last week. Two very different shows made up my first week of fall theater-going.
“In the Heights”
The adjectives most appropriate for composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and author Quiara Alegria Hudes’ musical “In the Heights” are exuberant, energetic and exhilarating. At least they are the ones most used in the show’s publicity and some of the reviews it received when it opened on Broadway in 2008.
The winner of four Tony Awards, “In the Heights” kicks off the new Walnut Street Theatre season in what can only be called a crowd-pleasing way. The audience on opening night was ecstatic. I don’t share their enthusiasm. (The show opened Sept. 3 and will run through Oct. 20.)
The show, set in the Washington Heights section of New York in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, tells about a Hispanic neighborhood that struggles to survive. The residents are all decent and human. The struggles individual face are overcome by their commitment to family and culture. It’s basically a feel-good show with a Hispanic beat.
Several things worked in its favor: the terrific cast that director Bruce Lumpkin has assembled, the magnificent Anna Louizos set (which includes the GW Bridge); Colleen Grady’s costumes and Michelle Gaudette’s athletic choreography.
It also has several things working against it. The often tuneful and almost always upbeat music tends to be monotonous. The various styles — rap, Hispanic, and more traditional rock — all meld together in what is ultimately a rather bland score, if bland with a pulsing beat.
Another shortcoming is the sound system that, because of its high volume, obliterates many of the lyrics. The show is hard to understand at times, and that makes its characters somewhat less sympathetic than Philadelphia native Hudes’ book likely intended.
“In the Heights” simply left me cold, bored even. It all seemed so mechanical and paint-by-the-numbers that it just never engaged me. As noted, that likely makes this is a minority report.
For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit walnutstreettheatre.org.
(Ed. Note: The supersonic amplification of musicals has become an unavoidable and repugnant fact of life at center city theaters. I recommend purchasing earplugs at any chain drugstore. I use them for every musical that we attend, and they cut the decibel explosion by 30 percent, which makes the volume bearable.)
“Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk with You?”
Tony Braithwaite’s one-man autobiographical show “Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk with You?” is about his time as a religion and sex-ed teacher at his alma mater, St. Joe’s Prep. Or at least that’s what it is on the surface.
It’s more than that, however. Braithwaite, one of the area’s most accomplished and popular actors, began his professional life with 12 years teaching at the Prep. From the evidence on Ambler’s Act II stage, where “Didn’t Your Father?” will run through Oct. 11, he loved it. My guess is he was also good at it.
The message of the play — which explores his own sex-ed experiences, the nature and uniqueness of a Jesuit institution and the joys and difficulties of teaching freshmen high school boys — is summed up by his comment, made several times, that kids may not remember what they learned in a teacher’s class, but they will always remember how the teacher made them feel.
The 70-minute class that Braithwaite holds at Act II is a mixture of the funny — kids of that age are funny — and moving. Some stories, built around his experiences teaching sex-ed, are a bit off-color in that kids can take anything just a tad suggestive and turn it into a moment of hysteria. There is also a sensitivity, particularly when dealing with students who came to him for advice and support, that is quite moving.
The stories of three students — one worried he’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant, one who was abused by an older family member and one who’s gay — bring the real job of the teacher, which is not just to teach the course material but also to care for kids non-judgmentally when they are having difficulty, into sharp focus.
That’s the best part of the evening. Directed by Mary Carpenter on Joe Binck’s and Ryan George’s fine classroom set, “Didn’t Your Father?” uses Braithwaite’s own father (on tape) to help him tell the story. It’s a nice addition initially, but it wore out its welcome after a while. Braithwaite is such a talented actor and convincing and admirable teacher that the show didn’t need the interruptions his father’s comments often created.
Teaching is clearly a passion for Braithwaite — he still directs the drama shows at St. Joe’s — and that comes across in a way that is both amusing and profound.
For tickets call 215-654-0200 or visit act2.org.