Cabrillo Stages a Sizzling In the Heights
In The Heights/ conceived and music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda/book by Quiara Alegria Hudes/directed & choreographed by Morgan Marcell/choreography recreated from Andy Blankenbuehler's original /Cabrillo Music Theatre, Thousand Oaks/through April 6 only
Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony and Grammy Award-winning show In the Heights had a lot to shout about when it played Broadway in 2008...in fact, it still does. First of all, it's a musical with and about Latinos - way overdue -plus it has a terrific book with a heartwarming storyline about a closely knit community. That's right, a real community, one that boasts a bevy of exceedingly real and likeable characters. Miranda also created a varied score with ballads & traditional pop melodies and salsa meshed together with rap. Now onstage for the first time in regional theatre, Cabrillo brings In the Heights to Thousand Oaks with a dynamite cast and direction by Morgan Marcell, who has also choreographed - wisely recreating Andy Blankenbuehler's original moves. To say that this production rocks is an understatement.
Led by Lano Medina as Usnavi (the role Miranda wrote for himself) the show starts at about 100 mph and never slows down. Usnavi is a fast-talking Dominican grocery-store owner who is everyone's favorite brother, son, you name it. Each day of living in the heights is made better through contact with him, and Medina nails the man's fine sense of humanity. If you don't already know him, by intermission, you want to be his friend. Petite Ayme Olivo makes a beautiful Nina Rosario, intelligent and caring, not unlike Usnavi, but her good fortune lies outside the heights, not within, as she has experienced study at Stanford University. Rachae Thomas is a sultry Vanessa, who, unlike Nina, has less of a chance for self-improvement. She resigns herself to stay, but like most of her friends, rarely lets living get her down. Thomas makes her up, happy, fiery and ready to dance. Tami Dahbura is Abuela Claudia, everybody's favorite grandma. Hailing from Cuba, she reminisces about starry Havana nights, so missing from the New York sky and keeps a strong faith, if not always for herself, at least for everybody else's goodwill. Dahbura's two solos are sung so earnestly and dynamically that they leave an indelible impression. Celina Clarich Polanco and Benjamin Perez are Camila and Kevin Rosario, Nina's parents, who will do just about anything to guarantee a successful future for their daughter. Others completing the cherished mix are Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy - another great singer, Frank Authello Andrus Jr. as Benny, so in love with Nina yet 'not fitting in', Chala Savino and Anna Gabrielle Gonzalez as Daniela and Carla, Vanessa's jovial partners at the hair salon, whose gossipy and graphically biting humor keep things jumping, kind of like in a Latino TV sitcom. Robert Ramirez is Usnavi's faithful Tonto cousin Sonny and Jose-Luis Lopez , Graffiti Pete, budding artista. Ramirez is a born comic and Lopez, a superior dancer. Suffice to say, the entire company are triple threat performers.
Guided by Marcell's fast pacing and mesmerizing choreography, the entire cast have energy to burn. When one of the street kids is asked early on if he can dance, the reply crackles "Like a drunk Chita Rivera!" Salsa and all the nonstop ingrained Latin rhythms are present. Miranda's music starts and ends with rap, but in between runs the gamut of styles with even a couple of beautiful ballads like "Inutil", "Paciencia y Fe", "Alabanza" and "Everything I Know".
Quiara Alegria Hudes' book does lapse into sitcom-like dialogue at times, but the stories have enough relevance and heart to maintain interest, and in the long run, it's the whole picture that matters most. Especially effective is Abuela Claudia's nurturing ways. We feel her fierce integrity to the very end... and beyond. And as far as winning the lottery is concerned, Usnavi's 'surprise' decision as to how to spend the money makes him a champion to his entire extended family. Yes, indeed, there's miles of heart to be found in the heights.
Cabrillo has rented original designer Anna Louizos' incredible touring set of the tenements and storefronts of the heights with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, authentic down to the smallest detail. Even if you have never lived in Washington Heights or any other barrio you can relate to this community of minority people who live for and love each other. In our repressed economic times, In the Heights represents what every place needs to have: a heightened sense of soul and joy that just won't quit. Cabrillo's production ranks with the best
(photo credit: Ed Krieger)