BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS soars high at Landmark Community Theatre
Lin-Manuel Miranda is most well-known for Broadway masterpiece, Hamilton, but many others would recognize his previous musical success, In The Heights. Not only does it share many similarities, including a cast of entirely persons of color and a rap inspired score, but it tackles many issues that still at the forefront of our society: primarily soaring housing and educational costs, as well as the struggles of living in marginalized communities, such as the Hispanic-American populations of Washington Heights. Miranda writes energetic and challenging musicals that require a dedicated and talented cast. Not only does Landmark Community Theatre have an exquisite cast for this production of Into the Heights, but their set was well-designed and the choreography was stunning, culminating in an energy-filled spectacle for the entire audience!
As with most musicals, if you have a weak leading role or narrator, then the show will suffer. But the inverse is also true: With the spectacular performance of Justin Torres as Usnavi- both the main character and the narrator- the story progressed smoothly, strongly, and timely. As such a large role as Usnavi is, Torres was more than comfortable, powerful, and charismatic enough to draw the audience in the moment he began the opening number. That and his natural chemistry with every other performer onstage, particularly Vanessa- passionately played by Jessica Irizarry- and Abuela Claudia- motherly played by Joanne Chenkus- led to an honest and genuine production in which the audience cared deeply about Usnavi and the people he calls his friends and family. Spearheading the other large character arch was Destiny Whitten as Nina Rosario: The not-so-triumphant return of the barrio's brightest woman broke the heart of the audience twice-fold: once in her admission of defeat during "Breathe," and again in her father's realization- genuinely portrayed by John Farias- that he had an indirect hand in his daughter's perceived failure. The emotional connections shared between characters were heightened with the chemistry between all of the actors and the love felt on stage was palpable.
One of the most intriguing facets of Miranda's musicals is the way he marries the book with the music and the music with the dance, with the help of Quiara Alegria Hudes in the case of In The Heights. Failure to marry those on stage will result in a clunky telling of a compelling story, but with the musical direction of Sean Lewis and the brilliant choreography of Foster Evans Reese, whom also directed the musical, the audience got the best of every world that Miranda penned to script. It would be hard to miss the connection between the choreography and the cast list, noting the two co-choreographers in Joshua Colon and Janina Rosa, who played Graffiti Pete and Daniela respectively. In the show, those two characters were always the strongest dancers on the stage, but never upstaging the focus- with the exception of Joshua Colon's captivating freestyle dance offs throughout the show that stole the audiences breath right out of their mouths, but those moments were planned to awe and Colon's talents shone bright.
The most difficult part of choreography is matching it with the set, and it was evident that its design was a collaborative process from the beginning so as to fit a hair salon, Usnavi's shop, Rosario's taxi service, and Abuela's house all on stage at the same time to effectively eliminate most transitions. Even with all of that, and with the use of rolling counters to expand the shop and taxi service when needed which was very clever, they still managed to fit a leg for the entrance to the Rosario's house, a staircase to lead deeper into Washington Heights, as well as a balcony and platform over Usnavi's and Rosario's! All of this and still left room to hold the crazy club dance at the end of act one without feeling claustrophobic or trapped. Their use of space was efficient and it only benefitted the actors.
It's very rare when everything falls into place for a production to pull off such a spectacular performance. The cast and crew of Landmark Community Theatre's production of In The Heights capitalized on their time, talents, and resources to create a work of art that left this reviewer's heart racing to see the next scene. You can see In The Heights at the Thomaston Opera House on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until October 6th.