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Review: IN THE HEIGHTS - ZACH Wows With Modern Classic

ZACH Theatre,Austin's premier regional theatre wows with their current production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony winning first musical with book by Quiana Agra Hudes.

IN THE HEIGHTS made it's way to Broadway in 2008, winning the Tony for Best Musical; it celebrates Miranda's youth in the mostly Latino Manhattan Neighborhood of Washington Heights. The story centers on a corner bodega (a small mini-mart that carries coffee, lottery tickets and soda) owned by Usnavy (Keith Contreras McDonald), a man who is content with his place in the world but his heart yearns for longtime customer and friend Vanessa (Alicia Taylor Tomasko). Working at the bodega alongside Usnavy is Sonny (Nicholas Garza) an overeager young pup who does his best to push his boss and Vanessa together. Next to the store is Rosario Limousine and Car Service where Kevin and Camila (Fernando Acevedo and Nicole Paloma Sorro) have a daughter, Nina (Cristina Oeschger) who is coming home from college at Stanford. The Rosario's employee Benny (Vincent J. Hooper) has held a torch for Nina and takes advantage of her arrival to spend time with her. But the heart of the community is Abuela Claudia (Theresa Medina), the neighborhood grandmother who dispenses love and scolding in equal measure to one and all. The whole show is filled with character, true affection that the music enhances in a bold, modern hip-hop/Latino style. One can hear Miranda's artistic voice in virtually every song as his precursor to HAMILTON captures our imagination and makes our blood pump to a salsa beat. While many believe that the 2015 founding father musical changed the way we look at musicals, it's earlier success of IN THE HEIGHTS that proved the rap/hip-hop combination could change the game. It created an instant classic and set the stage for HAMILTON's outrageous success.

Rock musicals have been legion since HAIR debuted in 1968, but musicals that are driven by hip-hop music are just getting started. If IN THE HEIGHTS is a forerunner of the style, audiences are in for a treat. The Latin beat is exhilarating, with urban moves combined with salsa and modern dance, the result is breathtaking in its artistry. Director and Choreographer Michael Balderrama brings all the Broadway magic and more to the Zach stage. The resident choreographer for Chicago's HAMILTON, native Texan Balderrama played the role of Usnavy in the Off Broadway production of IN THE HEIGHTS and he puts his heart and soul into ZACH's presentation. On point production values and a sizzling cast gives the Austin audience a spectacular experience. Every cast member is stellar right down to the chorus. Standouts include Nicholas Garza, as Sonny, the eager kid-on-the-block who is endearing in his pushiness. Alicia Taylor Tomasko as Vanessa is perfectly cast as the girl who knows her own mind but doesn't know her own heart. As the young outsider, Benny, Vincent J. Hooper is compelling and captivating, making the audience pull for him to win his girl. In a much smaller role, Diondre Teagle shows off his stellar dance moves and his magnetic charm in the role of Graffiti Pete. Paul Sanchez elicits chills once again on the Topfer Stage with his piercingly clear tenor voice as the Piragua Guy, who sells Puerto Rican flavored shaved ice on the hot July weather. Theresa Medina as Abuela Claudia is the heart and soul of the show, her performance is both vibrant and loving. But it's Keith Contreras McDonald who is the glue who holds the various threads together as Usnavy. His awkward attempts to attract Vanessa are so sweetly earnest that we laugh and cry with him. Anna Louizos' set design is spectacular in every detail from the weathered awnings to the clever design of the bodega. Scott Westervelt's costume design is bright and warm, allowing the dancers to move fluidly and freely. The lighting design by Sarah EC Maines is perfection, from the fireworks effects to dusk over the Brooklyn bridge, her use of color is inspired. If I didn't know is was in Austin, I would swear that I was seeing the IN THE HEIGHTS on Broadway.

I give my highest recommendation to IN THE HEIGHTS at ZACH Theatre, I loved every moment. If you have the opportunity to see this Broadway quality production it is not to be missed.

Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
ZACH Theatre, Austin, TX

May 31 - July 2, 2017

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Tickets: $129 - $69,

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