BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS Brings the Heat for Orlando Shakes' Season Opener
Despite the cool air inside Orlando Shakes, the heat of Washington Heights poured throughout the sold-out theatre on opening night of "In the Heights". The season opener for the newly rebranded theatre's 30th anniversary, packed an abundance of soaring melodies, energetic dance numbers and sweeping emotion into the two hour production.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's story of life on a small corner in New York's Washington Heights, tells the tale of a community of Spanish-speaking dreamers who eagerly, although somewhat nervously, look towards their futures during a time where change is imminent.
Orlando Shakes' take on the renowned, Tony-award winning Broadway production was beautifully displayed on-stage, with echoes of the neighborhood brought to life through the masterful scenic designs by Jim Hunter. Hunter's designs reflected the essence of Washington Heights, the culture Miranda's story strived to relay to a wider audience, and brought a slice of what life inside (and around) the corner bodega was like for those characters who call the area home.
While each role has a substantial impact on the plot line, perhaps the most recognizable would be Usnavi de la Vega, our master of syntax and the owner of the primary setting-the corner bodega. Portrayed by Ernie Pruneda, Usnavi takes us through his world with unique rhymes and rhythms that prove to be a mouthful at times in true Miranda fashion. However, Pruneda tackles the challenge brilliantly, bringing the heart and energy of Miranda's character to stage with elegance and drive that carries the audience along with him for the ride.
Alina Alcántara is the heart and soul of the neighborhood-and the show-as the endearing Abuela Claudia. Her shining moment, and the words echoed so frequently throughout the show, lives within her solo "Paciencia Y Fe" (Patience and Faith). Alcántara connects emotionally with the audience from the moment she enters, but keeps them close to her heart throughout the show and this graceful number.
Her connection with the audience proved to be a powerful one considering the amount of tears that were shed throughout the entire theatre during one of the show's most heart wrenching scenes revolving around Abuela Claudia. (The echoes of sniffles both on-stage and off can vouch for that.)
As if the stage wasn't hot enough already, Iliana Garcia and Deon'te Goodman turn up the heat with their impeccable chemistry as Nina Rosario (the shining Stanford star who has returned home from college) and Benny, an employee of Nina's father and a longtime family friend. The duo soar vocally during shared numbers such as "Benny's Dispatch" and "When You're Home", but the bow on top of their vocal gift to the production is during "Sunrise". Throughout this number, Garcia and Goodman stoke their palpable spark on-stage into a flame that swiftly draws the audience into their romance. They playfully bring out the joy of young love, and yet manage to easily balance the carefree bliss of their love with the heavier themes and conflict that later develops in their storylines.
Zach Infante, who portrays Sonny, was also a dose of heart and juvenile joy, proving entirely versatile as he delivered the exact emotion needed to balance any scene. During moments of dreaming he was a voice of reason, during moments of grief he was innocence, and during tense scenes he was the lighthearted comic relief that proved to be exactly what the audience craved. He was light on his feet and partnered well with delinquent (but steadfast) buddy Graffiti Pete, portrayed by Erick Ariel Sureda.
Speaking of actors who are light on their feet, this show wouldn't be the same without the little vignettes of the life of our Piragua Guy, portrayed by the fun and high-spirited Bert Rodriguez. While the subtext of his character represents the overall theme of the show and serves as a microcosm of American franchises impeding on local businesses-and therefore, represents the looming change and gentrification of immigrant communities-he keeps the energy high at all times with his enthusiasm. However, that's looking at his role with a magnifying glass and at the end of it all, Rodriguez simply brings a smile to the faces of everyone around him, audiences included.
Although led by a fairly strong cast, the ensemble had a few moments in which the smooth rhythm of the show stuttered briefly. Opening night jitters could be to blame for a few hiccups in choreography, though the inconsistency of fluidity in dance numbers points to a larger issue within the cast. In some scenes the choreography feels more chaotic than cohesive, where at other moments it's elegant and still reflective of the exciting and energetic environment it's representing. Individually the dancers perform well, with special kudos to Sureda who elevates the dancing with exceptional moments on stage, but once combined, the group struggles slightly to remain united.
Another inconsistency lies with some of the costume designs in the show, primarily during Act I. As an element that is created to enhance a production, at times certain choices came across more distracting than beneficial in scenes. While many were spot on and felt reminiscent of the original choices made in Miranda's production, a few overly bedazzled jeans and fraying articles felt as though some attempts to appeal to the culture and time period were lost in translation.
Regardless of a few stray threads in the overall fabric that is "In the Heights", if this production is any indicator of Orlando Shakes' upcoming season, I believe we are going to be in for one hot and wondrous spectacle after another.
"In the Heights"
Orlando Shakes in the Margeson Theater
John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center
812 East Rollins Street, Orlando, FL 32803
When: September 5 - October 7, 2018