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Toby's scales new 'Heights' with a Latin sensation

By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

11:38 PM EDT, May 22, 2013

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In offering the regional premiere of the 2008 Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights," Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia has reached its own new heights.

Toby's production of "The Color Purple" last season garnered a record number of Helen Hayes Awards nominations, but the dinner theater raises the bar even higher with this musical celebrating a vibrant Latino community in New York City's Washington Heights.

"In the Heights" was the first important Broadway musical with book (playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes) and music (composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) by Latinos. The story of ambitious people following their dreams and sharing their dedication to family, culture and community is propelled by the rhythms of hip-hop, soul, reggae and salsa.

Toby's production maintains the show's vibrant Latino excitement. Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey have gathered a young Broadway-caliber cast that delivers amazing performances to tell their individual stories. Orenstein and Munsey brilliantly pace this nonstop show so that every element is polished.

Music direction by Cedric D. Lyles is first-rate, and so are the talented musicians like Latin percussionist Orlando Cotto who provide scintillating rhythms.

Toby's production features distinctive choreography by Christen Svingos, in her second show at the Columbia venue. The set design by David A. Hopkins creates an exciting, predominantly Hispanic community.

With skyline elements rimming the upper level in silhouette, Lynn Joslin's lighting design uses the set to give the audience a reference to the time of day. Together, the Hopkins-Joslin team creates an environment of dazzling color and pulsating energy.

Familiar Toby performer David Gregory plays Usnavi, a leading player who also serves as the show's narrator. He masters every song, from rap to love duet, and rises to passionate heights in "Alabanza," the show's major number.

Alyssa Gomez is a standout as Nina, who returns home after having dropped out of her first year at Stanford. Gomez is a skilled actress and fine singer, delivering a fabulous solo, "Breathe."

Ryan Alvarado, who plays Sonny, brings a strong sense of comedy to his role as cousin and summer helper at Usnavi's bodega — the neighborhood grocery and wine store.

Nadia Harika shines as Vanessa, who displays her fabulous voice in "It Won't Be Long Now" and provides some tender moments as Sonny's love interest.

Santina Maiolatesi, as Daniela, provides a large share of laughs as the beauty salon gossip, and can belt out a song in high style. Another debuting cast member is Mili Diaz, as Nina.

Regularly featured players who might be described as Toby's repertory group become credible Latino residents of the Heights. David Bosley-Reynolds, as Kevin, the owner of Rosario's Car and Limousine and Nina's father, gives a richly dimensional portrayal of a Puerto Rico immigrant who is a devoted husband and father, and who has worked to create a successful business.

A high point of the evening is delivered by Reynolds in his moving interpretation of "Inutil" ("Useless"), reflecting Kevin's self-doubts while conveying a man who is decidedly not useless.

As Kevin's wife, Camila, Tina DeSimone has a role worthy of her huge talent. Elegant in her subdued costume, DeSimone's Camila is grounded in reality and firmly fixed on her family as its foundation, passionately holding the clan together in her solo, "Enough" — another high point of the evening.

Crystal Freeman is a standout as Abuela ("Grandmother") Claudia — admired and loved as everyone's grandmother, especially by Usnavi, whom she raised after the death of his parents. Freeman's solo, "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith"), provides another showstopping moment.

Olivia Ashley Reed displays energetic moves as Carla, while Marquise White plays hardworking employee Benny, who gradually conveys tender devotion to Nina and displays major talent in their magical duet, "When the Sun Goes Down."

Tobias Young reveals his own vocal prowess as Piragua Guy in his solo, "Piragua."

In song and dance, every player contributes to the vibrant whole that forms this colorful neighborhood, where American holidays are celebrated to a frenzied Latino beat, as reflected in pulsating vivid colors.

"In the Heights" continues through July 21. Tickets are $35.50 to $54, including Toby's buffet dinner. Call 410-730-8311 to reserve or order online at tobysdinnertheatre.com.