BWW Reviews: IN THE HEIGHTS Hits the Heights at Broadway San Jose thru April 22


Wow!  What a night at Broadway San Jose’s production of In The Heights.  Winner of four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the cast of In The Heights rapped, hip-hopped and merengue’d their way through Pulitzer Prizewwinning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ immigrant tale of angst, hope, community and love – and, in the process, danced their way into the hearts of the audience.  Playing now through April 22, In The Heights embodies the next generation of American Musical Theatre and it soars.

The show was conceived in the heart and soul of composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was homesick for his Washington Heights, Manhattan neighborhood, and poured all of that pining into song and the first glimmers of a story. What emerged was a rich and dynamic salsa-infused, slice-of-life tale about a modern immigrant community on the cusp of change.  Who will stay? Who will go?  Whose dreams will thrive and how will the neighborhood survive the gentrification that is slowly beginning to take place?

Hodges and Hodges were there to take it all in and report back to you about In The Heights.

Right off the top, what grabbed you, Nick?

What grabbed me off the top and throughout the show was set designer Anna Luizos’ Washington Heights cityscape. It looked as if they had literally taken part of Washington Heights and placed it on stage.  The detail of the bodega (corner store), Rosario's Car Service, and the hair and nail salon, were amazing.  Each shop had its own special style and uniqueness to it.

Loizos colorfully captured the ethnic flavor of the ‘hood down to the spray painted metal gate pull-downs (courtesy of Graffiti Pete, played by the talented Roddy Kennedy). Looming in the background is the iconic George Washington Bridge - the way in…and out of the neighborhood.

The show starts with Usnavi (Perry Young), the young Dominican who owns the corner store bodega. It’s where the local shop owners, workers and residents come to get their morning coffees, newspapers and lottery tickets.  I thought that Young did a fantastic job in all his numbers.  He has a lot of hip hop and rapping to do in this show and he annunciated everything and was easy to understand.  The whole cast’s annunciation is especially important for this show because it does have hip hop and rap; styles of music that many theatre goers aren’t familiar with and they did a great job.

It was an explosion of new sensations to hear rap grafted onto the musical theatre genre.  And really, it’s a style that seems tailor-made for the theatre.  Music Supervisor Alex Lacamoire won the Tony for “Heights” and he certainly deserved it.  The show is a mix of musical styles and it is absolutely daring in its unique composition.  What a treat!

I like the way that playwright Hudes wove the character’s individual stories together to paint such a vivid portrait of a modern immigrant experience.  Usnavi sees himself returning to his native Dominican Republic, fed by dreams that his Abuela Claudia (the amazing Christina Aranda) has shared with him all his life.  He’s in love with the gorgeous and perhaps unattainable Vanessa (Presilah Nunez) who is desperately trying to find a way out of the neighborhood and her job at the salon.  Besides, it looks like the salon is going to be sold anyway.  And then there are the Rosarios.

Yes, Kevin and Camila Rosario (Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco), who own the cab company, are doing their best to pay for their daughter Nina’s Stanford education.  When Nina (Virginia Calaliere) comes home to tell them that she’s lost her scholarship they are heartbroken.  They want so much for their daughter to succeed.  Perez is absolutely sublime as the father who vows to do more to make their American dream come true. “I will not be the reason that my family can't succeed,” he sings. “I will do what it takes/They'll have everything they need.”  I’m sure a lot of parents can relate to that.

I felt that Virginia Cavaliere was incredibly genuine in her interpretation of the character Nina.  She was so scared to tell her parents that she hadn’t finished the semester.  I think she was so good that she made co-star Kyle Carter, who plays her love interest Benny, seem less authentic.  He had an excellent voice though.

The dynamic between Benny and Nina’s father Kevin was especially interesting and they both played it very well.  Kevin raised Benny like a son, taught him how to drive and how to tie a tie – even hired him to work at the cab company.  But when he finds out that Benny and Nina are in love he abandons that close relationship because Benny is African-American.  It shows us what is still happening today in this country and that more and more young people are breaking away from their past generations' biases.  It’s a wonderful lesson and was portrayed very well.

Abuela Claudia, played by Christina Aranda, was one of my favorite characters in this show.  Aranda’s transformation in body and voice into an old sickly woman was truly believable.  She was a powerhouse of a singer while still keeping her elderly character in tact; just fantastic.

I thoroughly enjoyed the part of Sonny, played by Robert Ramirez.  His comedic timing was spot on and his character decisions were well chosen.  His quirky charm made him an endearing character.  He’s also the one pushing for people to stay in the neighborhood.

The salon ladies Daniela (Tauren Hagans), Carla (Katherine Brady) and Vanessa (Presilah Nunez) were a perfect trio.  Tauren Hagans did a great job as owner Daniela.  She had a great accent and was a perfect comic relief and delivered her jokes flawlessly.  Katherine Brady does an excellent job as Daniela’s Jesus loving side-kick Carla.  The two of them as a team were a joy to watch and added that dash of comedy that was a great contrast to the more serious aspects of the show. 

What was a highlight for you, Nick?

Hands down it was the “Club/Fireworks” number at the close of Act I.  The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (recreated by Michael Balderrama) was out of the world.  It was sharp and chiseled yet fluid at the same time. The buildup to the kiss – I won’t say between whom – was fantastic.

I saw people jump out of their seats after that number!  I have to say it was one of the finest moments of musical theatre that I’ve ever seen. It built tension to a fever pitch and then boom – the lights come up and it’s intermission.  I’m positive no one left at that point.

Act II was just as dynamic.  Excellent acting and the energy of the actors, not to mention outstanding sing voices make this touring production top-notch. 

And even though the run for this show was short, the remainder of Broadway San Jose’s season promises to be just as good.  Still to come are Million Dollar Quartet (May 8-13) and Mary Poppins (May 29-June 10).

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes,
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Through April 22
Photo courtesy of Broadway San Jose

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