BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at Mesa Encore Theatre
There are a plethora of amazing shows out there that give actors the opportunity to not only speak on important and relevant issues in the communities that surround them but also touch the hearts of those within earshot who may have had similar experiences growing up. These shows, especially anything Lin-Manuel Miranda touches, tends to strike a chord with folks that know and have been around struggle and grit, making sure to brighten the light of hope and optimism within all of us, usually through Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith). Mesa Encore Theatres production of In the Heights is a prime example of shows such as these that remind your heart of where it came from and the hopes and dreams lingering within. As well, with a powerhouse cast and amazing music, there is no way you can keep from dancing in your seat.
In The Heights is the story of a Washington Heights Neighborhood and its people, from those doing alright for themselves like Kevin and Camila to the Piragua Guy that is barely scraping by. Throughout, there are hundreds of stories being told, intertwining their community into a close-knit family. The focus, of course, is on bodega owner Usnavi, played by Israel Jiménez. Israel was everything Usnavi needed to be, fitting the mold of his tough love like relationship with Sonny (Adrian DeGuzman), borderline awkwardness around Vanessa (Alek Rahman), and the caring bond he has with his Abuela Claudia (Greta Skelly). The connection between Greta and Israel is outstanding. Their bond felt genuine and made a perfect recipe for waterworks later in the show (No Spoilers). Greta Skelly is easily a powerhouse on her own simply based on her astonishing performance of Paciencia Y Fe. Her soaring voice dropped every jaw in the audience including my own. Greta brought out the matriarch in Abuela, as well as the stubborn hardheadedness that the wiser in years folks in our lives can and should attest to. Adrian DeGuzman's Sunny was a riot to watch, giving off the not so innocent little brother vibe. However, Adrian isn't just comic relief, portraying Sunny as one of Usnavi's strongest supporters as he continues to keep him grounded to his neighborhood. Truly the Burt to his Cousin Usnavi's Ernie
Alek Rahman as Vanessa portrayed well the persona of someone yearning for more, with dreams of hopping on the next train to take her the furthest from the Barrio. As well, she was a perfect match for Israel, with more depth than just a love interest. Their chemistry built a perfect arc through the show that, although felt a bit obvious from the beginning, was still fun to watch. However, their connection was no match to the chemistry between Nina, played by Frenki Hykollari, and Benny, played by Avery Jones. You find yourself searching for Avery and Frenki together on stage, begging to see how their Tony and Maria like relationship will progress. Benny's clash with Nina's father Kevin (played by Damon J. Bolling) was a thing of beauty, fearing for the effects of an overprotective father on their budding relationship. Damon's performance of Inútil (Useless) was enchanting, clutching at the honest hearts of every father in the audience, including my own. Damon's powerhouse partner, Monica Hernandez Bollt, portrayed the Matriarch Camila perfectly. I was under the impression that only my mother and wife could shut me down with such gusto. Apparently now I have to add Monica's name to the list after she sang Enough. Damon and Monica's candor to their respective roles felt like a reflection of folks trying to do what's best for their family, especially when it comes to their daughter Nina.
One of the greater aspects of this production is its ensemble and supporting roles. For folks that have been surrounded by this aspect of culture in their life, you begin to see the faces and actions of people that have crossed your path at one time or another. Chris R. Chávez as the Piragua Guy reminded me of my California roots, chasing down shaved ice as a kid, while Daniela and Clara, played by Luz Navarro and Cné Serrano, brought back memories of my neighbors who taught me to Salsa at one of their many parties. Jesus Diaz and James McCormick (Graffiti Pete) reminded me of friends I hadn't seen in years. As well, the Hip Hop overtones that play throughout is one of the major attributes that made me gravitate to this show. As any Hip Hop head would be, I walked into the theatre, skeptical of how some of the songs would be executed and was impressed at the skill at which actors like Israel, Avery, and Adrian possessed.
The only downside that I found was the quality of sound and mic issues that plagued the performance. As immaculate as the band was, effortlessly bringing to life the Hip Hop and Latin vibes desired from this show, the balance between the band and voices on stage was nonexistent. Paired with mics either not high enough or even not on at times, the performance was in danger of having many missed moments. A prime example is a moment where Nina and Usnavi are reminiscing together on Abuela Claudia's stoop. Nina's mic cut out during the beginning of the song, potentially leading to losing an important and heartfelt moment during the show. Luckily, with the bands quick thinking to pull back their volume, Frenki's projection of her voice, and a captivated audience going dead silent, we didn't miss this moment. This, unfortunately, wasn't the case for a few other places where moments fell incomplete with inaudible lines and lyrics.
Director Marcos D. Voss, Music Director Lorenzo Slavin, and Choreographer Nick Flores did a phenomenal job. The hard work by the cast and crew is apparent and every individual should be proud of their efforts. Seeing a cast come together with such fervor and passion was a refreshing sight as they strum your heartstrings to Latinx rhythms and Hip-Hop vibes. In The Heights is a must see that will keep you dancing all the way home. Make sure to catch this amazing production, Running until June 2nd at the Mesa Arts Center. Find ticket info at www.mesaencoretheatre.com
Photo Credit: Justin McBride