BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at Pasadena City College Brings Washington Heights to California
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created his revolutionary, ground-breaking show Hamilton, he brought the life of Washington Heights, New York to Broadway in his first musical, IN THE HEIGHTS. Opening at the Richard Rogers Theater in 2008 with a book written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, IN THE HEIGHTS was written about the neighborhood Miranda grew up in - and though far away from Manhattan, the Pasadena City College Performing and Communication Arts Division Theater Department in California used their Spring 2017 production to tell the story so truthfully that it felt just as though you were walking down that upper Manhattan city block.
Centered on shop-owner owner, Usnavi (Michael Gonzales), the musical tells the story of how the neighborhood works with, embraces, and rediscovers their roots as strong and determined Latino individuals. Directed by Karen Benjamin and lead by a diverse cast of performers, Miranda's salsa-infused hip-hop story was brought to life by the Pasadena City College (PCC) cast, showing Usnavi and his neighbors passing through his bodega, buying coffee, exchanging stories on how they've come to leave their homes in the Caribbean, and how they're now living life in New York.
PCC's recreation of the original IN THE HEIGHTS set transported its audience to New York even before the opening number hit the stage. Originally created by scenic designer, Anna Louizos, the neighborhood salon and mom & pop shop, placed in front of an incredible painting of the Washington Bridge made me feel like I could walk down the street and see the Rosario's dispatch station to the left and know that Usnavi's bodega and Daniella's salon are two steps away - a breathtakingly real scene that made me feel like part of the strong community shown on stage.
Through his fast-paced rapping, Michael Gonzales took the audience through two days in Washington Heights, facing the summer heat, blackouts, and even piragua for sale. Gonzales's portrayal of Usnavi greatly mirrored Miranda's warm yet hilarious take on the character, showcasing the heart he had for his home and community. Linking together the lives of Nina Rosario (Kylie Grogan) and Benny (Corey Black), both performers delivered strong, musical numbers that displayed the important connection that love and culture share. Actresses Diahann Elise, Eileen Goodwin, and Alleanna Gabrille Torres, who played Vanessa, Danielle, and Carla, conveyed through music and dance their loyal and uplifting sisterhood. Jay Faisca, Jackie Cox, Ariella Fiore, and Sean Monje, who played Kevin, Camila, Abuela Claudia, and Sonny all brought the true definition of family and dedication to the stage through their spirited performances. The voices of the entire cast also came together to fill the auditorium during the powerful, city-shaking number, "Blackout," in Act One and the touching number, "Alabanza," in Act Two.
Choreographer, Marissa Herrera, who choreographed the show at its West Coast premiere, joined PCC to bring the energy of Washington Heights to life. Every member of the cast brought that same energy to the stage, performing a colorful rendition of the opening number "In the Heights," as well as a wild and vibrant version of the cultural celebration that "Carnaval Del Barrio" displays. Drawing from the complex and energetic choreography, the cast waved the flags of their home countries in the air during this incredible number, prompting most of the audience to clap along and dance in their seats. PCC's fourteen piece orchestra, led by music director Kyle Luck, also brought the sounds of the neighborhood to the stage. These musicians put on a full display of culture through the music they played, especially during the salsa number, "The Club," and it was just as exciting to hear this song as it was to watch this band spread that energy around the auditorium.
From the dancing to the set-design to the singing and orchestration, this production of IN THE HEIGHTS was nothing short of the incredible feeling you get when listening to the Original Broadway Cast Album - in fact, this performance elevated that experience and story even more. Miranda's call for embracing culture, life, and unity is showcased through the book, music, and choreography of IN THE HEIGHTS, and after this production with Gonzales declaring Usnavi's last line - "I'm home," - that message was easy to grasp.
Photo by Pasadena City College Theater