BWW Review: North Carolina Theatre's IN THE HEIGHTS
In the Heights is an original musical that is set over the course of three days, involving characters in the largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. Originally conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, the musical had its world premiere through their student theater company in April of 2000.
After having done further work on it, a new version of In the Heights debuted at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut in July of 2005 before making it to New York at Off-Broadway's 37 Arts Theater in 2007. On March 9th, 2008, the show finally made it to Broadway, where it ran for 1,184 performances after closing on January 9th, 2011. During its run, In the Heights won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The story itself is pretty unconventional for a musical. Rather than having a plot that leaves you on the edge of your seat, book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes offers an interesting character study that delves into the lives of each of the main characters. Aided by Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap score (which definitely has that same distinctive sound that would later carry over to Hamilton) that brilliantly moves the story along, In the Heights is a fresh, contemporary musical that has themes of home, community, and family.
Under the direction (and choreography) of Michael Balderrama, he's able to assemble a first-rate cast of performers from both New York and the Triangle area that brings a lot of energy to the table. Actor Andres Quintero (who actually hails from Venezuela) gives a charismatic performance as the central character of Usnavi de la Vega, the owner of a small bodega in Washington Heights who dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic. He also has some incredible rapping skills as he provides exposition at certain points in the show.
Everyone else in the ensemble has their own standout moments. Cristina Sastre probably has the best character arc as Nina Rosario, a good girl who returns home after dropping out at Stanford University much to the dismay of her parents (her overprotective father played by Danny Bolero and strong-willed mother played by Carly Prentis Jones). Sastre also has great chemistry with Benny, play be Nick Sanchez, who has dreams of opening his own business. Melanie Sierra plays Usnavi's love interest, Vanessa, who dreams of of getting out of the Barrio and getting an apartment downtown. Nicole Paloma Sarro gives a heartfelt performance as 'Abuela' Claudia, the loving matriarch of the barrio who has looked after Usnavi since his parents died. Reed Lorenzo Shannon is well-cast as Usnavi's sassy, yet ambitious younger cousin, Sonny de la Vega. Genny Lis Padilla is a highlight as Daniela, the outrageously dramatic owner of the salon where the neighborhood girls come to gossip.
I should also give credit to Michael Balderrama for actually having members of the ensemble on stage doing different things during small intimate moments with the main characters. Also props to Samuel Rushen for pulling off some incredibly inventive lighting designs as well as Eric Alexander Collins & Brian L. Hunt for getting the sound design just right, making sure every member of the audience in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium is able to hear everything that's going on. If you're one of those people who've only been familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda's later work on Hamilton, you should really get to know In the Heights as it was the musical that first put him on the map as a talent to watch. This production is currently playing at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through October 21st.
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