BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS Is The Hottest Ticket In Town
Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS hit Broadway in 2008, garnering eleven Tony nominations and taking home four statues, including a Tony for Best Musical. Miranda created a big-hearted musical about the experiences of Latin immigrants living in upper Manhattan, particularly the Washington Heights neighborhood. The show was a break-down-the-walls springboard for the current king of Broadway, a gateway to what has become a stellar career for Miranda. As Miranda's smash hit Hamilton is the current gotta-have-it on Broadway, we can take solace in the fact that IN THE HEIGHTS is here and happily accessible.
The IN THE HEIGHTS creative team creates a glowing nest from which the outstanding cast shines. With eclectic and effervescent music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspiring and provocative choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, recreated choreography by Jose-Luis Lopez, and a strong book by Quiara Alegeria Hudes how can they go wrong? They can't. The production at Theatre Under The Stars is big-hearted, beautiful, and exuberant.
The show opens with the lead character, Usnavi, introducing himself via rap. Usnavi runs a bodega on the corner, close to his adopted Abuela and the Rosario family, who serve as a surrogate family of sorts. We like Usnavi (played by Anthony Lee Medina) immediately- he's the orphan we cheer for, the nice guy trying to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Medina plays the role with an offhand, humble candidness, a style that works perfectly with the vibe of the show. Usnavi is very close to Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the Rosario family. Abuela Claudia suffers from some health problems, and Usnavi looks after her, urging her to "take her medicine." The Rosarios own a car service on the same block as Usnavi's bodega. Kevin Rosario is an immigrant who made a ton of sacrifices for his family and specifically for his daughter, Nina, whom he hopes to see graduate from Stanford University. Alas, Nina has secretly dropped out of college, under financial stress and academic strain. To make matters worse, she's getting a little too close to Benny, a lowly employee at the car service, who would never get the stamp of approval from Nina's father. Meanwhile, Usnavi is falling hard for Vanessa, the resident hot girl, who is slow on the uptake about his feelings. The cast breakdown includes a saucy beautician (Daniela) and her Jesus-loving side kick (Carla), a slippery graffiti artist, a funny bodega worker named Sonny, and a bustling "Piragua" man who sings with gusto and jollity. Everyone is attached somehow, and the tableau is one of busy underdogs, trying to do the best they can.
Musically, the show is poetry. The tunes lean in from rap to salsa, to pop ballads, and an awesome gospel/belt solo from Abuela Claudia (Rayanne Gonzales). It's varied and yet in harmony, exciting and emotional. The lyrics are often humorous, and the raps had me hanging on the edge of my seat with the clever word-bending. This is a musical that makes you want to groove in your seat. Standouts in the first act include the aforementioned Abuela's "Paciencia y Fe," in which Gonzales blows the house down; Nina's pensive "Breathe;" "No Me Diga," sung by Daniela, Carla, Vanessa, and Nina; "Piragua" by the Piragua Guy; and "The Club/Fireworks" sung by the cast just before intermission. The latter is passionate and theatrical and had me clapping for more. The second act starts off rather low-key, with a soft romantic ballad between Benny, Nina and the cast ("Sunrise"), then an emotional "Hundreds of Stories" by Abuela Claudia and Usnavi, who reminisce about home and their existence in America. "Carnival del Barrio" gets us kickin' up our heels again when the cast decides to throw a block party to deal with the effects of the neighborhood's power outage. "Alabanza" is a moving song that expresses love and connection in times of sadness. Really, there is no weak number in this production and there are many times when the cast's vocals give goosebumps. The band (or orchestra, depending on the song) is a life-affirming entity of its own, hopping nimbly from one genre to another.
The cast is downright lovable. Medina plays Usnavi with an offhand, humble candidness, a style that works perfectly with the vibe of the show. Rayanne Gonzales is wonderfully nuanced in her performance; a sympathetic character, but never wimpy; kind, but comedically in tune. Her voice is sublime - rich, earthy and warm. As Sonny, the resident goober, Philippe Arroyo is the neighborhood clown, whether he's gyrating to impress the ladies or walking around the bodega with a Red Vine hanging out of his mouth. Michelle Beth Herman plays Nina Rosario with a sweet depth and expressive voice. As good-natured Benny, Blaine Krauss is very easy on the eyes and makes an apt love interest. Krause has a great tenor register and he and Herman harmonize beautifully. Chelsea Zeno is a knockout as Vanessa, with a pure-honey voice and legs for days. Isabel Santiago is sexy and commanding as hair dresser Daniela, and her sidekick, played by Alicia Taylor Tomasko, is sweetly dim-witted and funny as Carla. Danny Bolera played Kevin Rosario in the first touring cast of the show, and owns his role here as Nina's controlling but loving father. The lovely April Ortiz is effective as Camila Rosario, especially in the scene when she has to put her foot down to her hot-headed husband.
Lighting designer Steven Young elevates the production to an even higher level with excellent lighting effects, especially at the end of act one, in the number "The Club/Fireworks."
IN THE HEIGHTS is a must-see. Part of what makes this production special is that the actors didn't seem to be playing roles; they seemed to be living in their characters. The show itself is one-of-a-kind, and the cast, including the ensemble, have a sure understanding of theatrical commitment.
Get you tickets soon.
IN THE HEIGHTS runs at the Hobby Center from Sept. 13 through Sept. 25.
Photo Credit: Os Galindo