BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS Astonishes Audiences at Dallas Theater Center
Sometimes a show is so good that as a theatre critic, you become embarrassed- because the only words that come to mind are "wow," "amazing," and "unbelievable." Dallas Theater Center has brought excellence itself to life in its production of Lin Manuel-Miranda's In the Heights. Every element of this show was exceptional- from the choreography to the lighting design. DTC managed to produce a show that filled the audience with delight, sorrow, and Latinx pride- all while maintaining a flawless technical execution. If that weren't enough, the story of In the Heights has a beautiful depth and is filled with action, making the whole experience completely engrossing.
Though so many elements of this show were superb, the talent of the cast was unparalleled. Each and every actor executed with precision and explosive energy. The hero, Usnavi, was played by a spunky and energetic Xavier Cano. His confidence and practiced nonchalance around Vanessa made him instantly likeable- and his commitment to the barrio made him completely endearing. Cano captured the strength of Usnavi that makes him a leader in his vibrant community.
Though I am tempted to start off describing Vanessa as Usnavi's love interest, this character played by Marina Pires is so much more than that. Though my first impression of this character was that of a hardened young woman who "never got out," Pires brought to life the softer, more complex side of Vanessa, rounding out a picture of a young woman who is bursting with life and ambition. Her song, "It Won't be Long Now," was sung with sincere and intense conviction and a stunning tone quality. Pires dancing chops proved to be just as impressive as her singing when she danced circles around each of the other actors in "The Club," each movement full of effortless grace.
Though Vanessa's disappointment in life lay in the fact that she couldn't get out of the barrio, Nina's lay in the fact that in her eyes, she did- and failed, letting her community down in the process. Played by Tiffany Solano DeSena, Nina opened with the song "Breathe," which is one of the most relatable, gut-wrenching numbers in musical theatre that I've heard to date. Solano DeSena emptied her heart on the stage through that song, instantly commanding the respect and sympathy of the entire audience. This character arguably had the widest array of development and emotion, as you see her deal with the scars of shame, the rebelliousness of a daughter, and the spark of a burgeoning love interest.
Nina's parents, Kevin and Camila (David Lugo and Crissy Guerrero, respectively), were models of an authentic marriage: full of love, familiar tension, and unity by day's end. Lugo's rendition of "Inutil" crashed like a wave over the audience. It was powerful, and full of a different- but equally palpable-disappointment and shame that Nina experiences. Guerrero laid down the law as a true matriarch in "Enough," rightfully calling Nina and Kevin to their senses, and reminding them of their duties as members of a family.
With no shortage of confidence and bravado, Devin L. Roberts nailed the role of Benny. His ambition and pride in his work is juxtaposed from the start with the attitudes of Usnavi and his cousin Sonny- the former who can't wait to stop working, and the latter who can't be bothered to show up to work on time. Roberts perfectly captured the wounds that an outsider- in this case, a non-Latino - faces in a community he thought had accepted him like one of their own. As the show progresses, Benny's tough exterior gives way as he and Nina fall for each other. In a show full of strong and emotionally complex characters, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez's Sonny came as a welcome relief. A loveable knucklehead, Sonny has enough attitude for everyone in the barrio, and enough heart for all of Washington Heights.
And then there is Abuela Claudia, played by the immensely talented Nancy Ticotin. There was not a dry eye in the theater at the conclusion of her nostalgia-soaked "Paciencia Y Fe." Ticotin embodied the beautifully bittersweet position of an immigrant: someone who longs to belong as they once did, who is grateful for aspects of their new life, and who is most importantly intensely perseverant. Through Abuela, Ticotin shows us that strength does not lie in bravado, but in patience and faith.
If any song brought the house down, it was "Carnaval del Barrio" performed by Talia Thiesfield's Daniela. Stirring the despondent barrio into action, she made her neighbors come to life and remember their explosive Latinx pride. Thiesfield's Daniela was yet another strong, determined female in this remarkable show, whose success as a business owner was not dependent on any man. Her charming but dim-witted assistant, Carla (Lorens Portalatin) was an excellent foil to Daniela's assertive and commanding nature.
Last but not least, there is "Piragua Guy"- Kevin Solis. His peddling of "syrup and shaved ice" and the minor sub-plot of his competition with Mister Softee brought much mirth and laughter to the crowd. Solis' powerful voice and perpetually joyful demeanor was the cherry on top of an already fantastic show.
"Lights up in Washington Heights" revealed a set that looked as though it were a plucked from the heart of the barrio. Dingy awnings hung amid streetlights, graffiti sprawled on various walls, and narrow stairways and fire escapes gave the impression of a packed cityscape. The lighting was impressive and consistently matched the mood of the show- bright for lighter scenes, and cooler tones were used for the more tense moments. The costumes were appropriate for age, gender, and the Latinx community- Vanessa's white dress in the club was especially mesmerizing! Finally, the choreography seen in this show was nothing short of phenomenal- the company (Christina Austin Lopez, Tiana Kaye Blair, Neville Braithwaite, Jorge Guerra, Delaney Love, Michael Anthony Sylvester, Emmanuel Hernandez, Traci Elaine Lee, Jeremy Tyrone Saxton) performed with robust energy and total unison, especially in the show-stopping "96,000."
There are few shows in which the character development is as robust as it is in Lin Manuel-Miranda's In the Heights. Frankly, it's just hard to accomplish in the span of two hours. Each person is complicated and nuanced- no one is two-dimensional. This show imbues with in us a sense of Latinx pride and makes the viewer want to celebrate their own community. Furthermore, In the Heights is so important for the Latinx community- the only other major musical that celebrates this culture is West Side Story- which was written in 1957, making the need for something fresh long overdue. But fear not- this is not just a story for the Latinx community. Its message is universal, and by the end of the musical, your feel as though these characters are your neighbors, are friends with whom you grew up.
If there is one show you see this year, make sure it's Dallas Theater Center's In the Heights.
In the Heights runs through October 20. Tickets may be purchased here.