BWW Reviews: Pioneer Theatre Company's IN THE HEIGHTS is Not to Be Missed

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Pioneer Theatre Company's regional premiere of In the Heights could easily be the greatest night of theatre you'll experience in Utah this year.  The well-crafted story and music, combined with the electric performances and incredible design, make it not to be missed!

In the Heights (music and lyrics by Lin-Maniel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría  Hudes) won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008, along with Tonys for score, orchestrations, and choreography.  It follows a cross-section of characters living in Washington Heights, a mostly Dominican neighborhood in New York City.  The music is filled with catchy rap, Latin rhythms, and moving Broadway ballads. Regardless of your cultural background, you will almost certainly identify with the universal situations and themes.  

Joseph Morales heads up the group of talented leading actors as Usnavi, who owns a small convenience store and hopes to someday return to his homeland, the Dominican Republic.  Mr. Morales, who played the role in the First National Tour, is charismatic as the heart of show and also adds zeal and youthful exuberance to the proceedings.

Emily Vasquez sparkles as Nina, who is the first in the neighborhood to go to college but is returning home from Stanford defeated after having lost her scholarship.  Ms. Vasquez is familiar to viewers of the first season of the Glee Project, where her singing and attitude were brassier and sultrier than they are here.  She plays Nina as a little dowdy but sweet and spirited with a soaring, pure voice.  Her performance highlights her versatility and makes evident her impressive acting chops.  She has a great future in musical theatre if she (hopefully) chooses to go that route.

Nina's father, Kevin, is played by Tony-nominated John Herrera, who created the role in the Off-Broadway production of the show.  Her mother, Camila, is portrayed by A Tale of Two Cities star Natalie Toro, who played the role in the First National Tour.  Both bring exceptional acting and vocal skills to their adept, layered portrayals of the spouses. 

Additional cast highlights include the smooth Joshua Boone as Benny, the heartbreaking Debra Cardona as Abuela Claudia, the dynamic Anthony Ramos Martinez as Sonny, and Orem local Natalie Hill as Daniela.  All of these cast members are exceptionally good fits for their respective roles.

The set and costume design by Tony-nominated G.W. Mercier are superb.  The set is a gritty, photoreal representation of a New York City neighborhood.  The details are so specific and realistic that it feels as if the audience is looking onto an actual street in Washington Heights, towered over by the George Washington Bridge.  The interior sets, also richly detailed, fold out onto the stage in effortless transitions.  The costumes effectively complement the set by reflecting the contemporary style of the lower-income residents of the neighborhood.  They give additional insight to the traits of the characters without drawing too much attention to themselves, and they feel like clothing rather than costumes, which is a compliment to the designer.

This production only has a few misses in a sea of hits. Manoly Farrell as Usnavi's crush, Vanessa, unfortunately doesn't do justice to the character's beautiful songs.  She seems uncomfortable in her attempts to belt the higher notes and is often under pitch.  If Ms. Farrell was ill the night of the reviewed performance, which she well could have been, an understudy should have replaced her.  Another underwhelming aspect of the production is the pedestrian choreography, which seems to make little attempt at the electric combination of smooth hip-hop and Latin dance styles that was heralded in the Broadway production.  In addition, the director's decision to include a white-clad woman singing as she overlooks the neighborhood is initially confusing and, though later explained, unnecessary.  The freshness and literalness of the show resist such attempts at reinterpretation.

As a whole, the show itself and this production of it are a very welcome addition to the Utah theatre scene.  Many thanks to Pioneer Theatre Company for staging this modern classic and so expertly.  The run is relatively short, so don't waste any time getting tickets so you can experience it for yourself. 

In the Heights plays through September 29, 2012.  For tickets, call the box office at 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org.

L-R: Emily Vasquez (Nina) and Joshua Boone (Benny).  Photo by Alexander Weisman.

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