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Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada

This new production in La Mirada is hands-down the best regional production of this Tony Award-winning musical this reviewer has ever seen. Period.

Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada
Rubén J. Carbajal (center)

First, let's just get this declaration out of the way right now: the new McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's debut musical IN THE HEIGHTS---which continues performances at the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts in, yes, the city of La Mirada through June 26, 2022---is, hands-down, the best regional production of this Tony Award-winning show I have ever experienced. Period.

Already locally known for their dazzling, Broadway-caliber regional productions here on the West Coast, the theatrical company (and their home venue) can once again claim another resounding winner with this one---a show that, during its recent opening night performance, commanded at least three show-stopping pauses so that the audience can continue cheering for what seemed like an eternity. This production aims to impress and entertain--and handily accomplishes both.

Though I slightly suspect that I might still be feeling a lingering bit of residual high from the spectacular big screen adaptation of the musical that played in movie theaters last summer, I seriously enjoyed experiencing this stage musical again live inside a theater as it was originally intended.

Exuding pure joy, blissful camaraderie, and high-energy theatrics, this exuberantly performed new Southern California production of IN THE HEIGHTS---directed with briskly-paced elation by Benjamin Perez---feels like such an emotionally amped-up, escapist antidote to the increasingly batshit crazy, sometimes tragic, and decisively divided times we currently must live with in our daily lives. Here---within its peppy, buoyant bubble of cultural and community pride---the musical provides audiences with a couple of fun hours to escape the real world for a bit, transporting us back to a moment in time not too long ago.

Before Miranda's HAMILTON blew up and became a revolutionary, pop culture phenomenon that flew far beyond its Broadway footprint, there was this first big show---Miranda's then groundbreaking original musical that theater traditionalists fell in love with for its spiritual and encyclopedic tether to classic musicals, and was also widely cheered for its culturally-specific yet universally relatable stories.

Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada
Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield (center)

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated musical made its Broadway debut in 2008 (after successful tryouts in Connecticut and off-Broadway) and was immediately embraced by critics and audiences for its vibrant, fiery music, its unique interweaving stories, and, of course, for Miranda himself who submitted a star-making turn as the show's charming, rhyme-spewing central character. Thanks to Miranda, Broadway finally welcomed its first 21st Century contemporary musical set in the mostly Latin-American barrio of Washington Heights---a not unique but hardly heard from point-of-view most audiences have never focused on before.

Leaning on a harmonious mix of infectious hip-hop and Latin grooves, sprinkled with lots of musical theater goodies in between, IN THE HEIGHTS is presented as a series of overlapping vignettes about the highs and lows---and the dreams and realities---of life in this culturally (but not economically) rich neighborhood, offering audiences of all ages and ethnicities a brief though impactful three-day glimpse of that richness during one particularly hot summer.

Miranda easily made his show both universally appealing and yet still uniquely testimonial, thanks to his first-hand knowledge of being a resident of Washington Heights that's been combined seamlessly with the obvious imbedded DNA of a musical theatre aficionado.

That theatre magic was present in pretty much every iteration I've seen so far---from a smaller, 100-seat black box theater to the first national tour stop at the Pantages Theatre where Miranda himself reprised Usnavi. And in the hands of the creative team and acting ensemble at La Mirada, Miranda's show truly reverberates once more, particularly by updating a few minor details here and there that have an unexpectedly powerful impact.

For the eyes and ears, this exciting new production in La Mirada is a dazzling feast. The colorful sets---credited simply to Music & Theatre Co.---are reminiscent of the original Broadway and touring productions while being beautifully enhanced by Donny Jackson's bold lighting design and Jonathan Infante's eye-popping projections. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc has outfitted the cast in timeless but decisively contemporary outfits that keep them geographically grounded in the neighborhood. The production is also blessed by a grand-sounding orchestra under the baton of musical director Brent Crayon.

Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada
Claudia Mulet, Lindsey Dantes, Daisy Marie Lopez, and Shadia Fairuz

And my gosh, the dancing! A special shout out to choreographer (and co-director) Marissa Herrera for fashioning truly dynamic and even sometimes hypnotic dance moves for this triple-threat cast. That "Carnaval del Barrio" from Act 2 is such a memorable highlight (the parade of flags even included a lovely extra surprise that even got me a little teary-eyed)!

But more than anything else, this production's enjoyability can, in my opinion, be mostly attributed to the show's all-around impressive, beautifully diverse ensemble, a collection of talented, enthusiastic performers of varying shapes, sizes, styles, and nationalities that made this purposefully inclusive show such a joy to watch (I see you and cheer for you, dude with the Filipino T-Shirt!)

At the center of this community of actors is Rubén J. Carbajal, fresh off the HAMILTON tour, and now here dispensing more of his laudable rap skills in the role of Usnavi, the friendly neighborhood corner Bodega owner struggling to keep his store afloat in the face of rising costs, constant vandalism, forgotten dreams, and being too shy to ask his crush out on a date. Carbajal is casually commanding, allowing his lead role to keep us rapt during his remarkable solos, but then morphs into a fanboy observer like the rest of us when his fellow co-stars move to center stage.

Carbajal has great comic rapport with the very amusing Jose Carlos Rivera who plays goofy-cute Sonny, Usnavi's young cousin whom he employs and (reluctantly) mentors as a way to keep him out of trouble. I really enjoyed his extra adorable take on the role, and he quickly became mine and the audience's favorite on many occasions.

Other standouts include Daisy Marie Lopez who plays stressed-out Stanford University freshman Nina, who's back home for the summer and is quite determined not to disappoint her parents despite the mounting pressure from not only family but the entire neighborhood to be super successful, especially as the first in her family (and, heck, in the entire neighborhood) to attend college. Blessed with a strong, gorgeous voice (very evident in her touching solo "Breathe"), she shares beautiful duets with the riff-tastic Hosea Mundi who plays her smooth-talking love interest Benny. Together, the two have a palpable chemistry that aids in their mutual portrayals.

Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada
Benjamin Perez, Hosea Mundi, and Crissy Guerrero

Benny, by the way, works at the car service dispatch that her Dad Kevin (director Perez, pulling double duty) and Mom Camila (Crissy Guerrero) own. Ooooh... awkward!

Next door to the bodega is the neighborhood salon, where we find three more ladies worth our kudos. First there's the vivacious, determined Vanessa, (played by bonafide triple-threat Claudia Mulet), a young woman aching to move out of the barrio but like most in her situation are met with a mountain of hurdles. Carbajal's Usnavi has a massive crush on her, and their will they or won't they flirty volleys become a cute recurring interplay. Vanessa's hilarious salon sisters Carla (Lindsey Dantes) and Daniela (Shadia Fairuz) are both terrific sources of comic relief throughout the show. I especially love the ladies' very playful "No Me Diga" (though I wish their mics were turned up a bit more during the number).

Also worth mentioning is the superb Kevin Solis, who appears intermittently as the Piragua Guy, hawking his tasty, sugary summer treat with soulful riffs galore. Heck, I wanna buy one from him!

And finally, there's the regal Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield, who understandably becomes the show's most beloved character of all: Abuela Claudia. Essentially the neighborhood's collective grandmother and wise sage, her unwavering confidence in Usnavi and Nina (and Sonny) speaks of the character's kindness, intuition, and resilience. Her "Pacienca Y Fe" is as powerful as it is heartbreaking, and she sings the heck out of it! Schofield also beautifully represents the show's pronounced and very proactive aim for true diversity within the cast, being the first Afro-Latina I've seen in this role, and she was absolutely peerless.

Interesting fact: though Perez has directed other productions of IN THE HEIGHTS prior to this one, this latest in La Mirada somehow exudes a brighter, more caffeinated vibe, from its expressive musicality to the terrific performances he manifested from its entire ensemble cast. The show is at its best when the entire cast fill every nook and cranny of the stage---a sea of excellence completely committed to bring their individual characters to vivid life.

Review: A Joyous, Must-See Production of IN THE HEIGHTS Thrills in La Mirada
Rubén J. Carbajal, Jose Carlos Rivera, and Hosea Mundi

If you're on the lookout for a musical where there's a lot to root for, then check out La Mirada's incredible new production of IN THE HEIGHTS while it's still here. With first-rate production values, impressive singing and dancing, and an ensemble of talented actors that will have you cheering out of your seat, it's certainly worth the trip to see this high-energy localized version of Nueva York. I seriously can't recommend this production enough.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by TAKE Creative courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of IN THE HEIGHTS at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, June 26, 2022. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

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