Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at NextStop Theatre Company

"In the Heights" runs at NextStop Theatre in Herndon through June 11.

By: May. 21, 2023
Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at NextStop Theatre Company
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Theater veterans know the sort of hard-to-believe coincidences and castastrophes that often plague live productions. The first act of "In the Heights" ends with the song "Blackout," as a power outage hits the titular, majority-Dominican north Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. At the Friday night performance of NextStop Theatre's current production which I attended, the stage experienced a technical lighting snafu during intermission. As someone who's been in technical mishaps before, I send the production crew my sympathies and complements on quickly resolving the issue.

Though "In the Heights" may be viewed in certain circles as "Lin-Manuel Miranda's other show," the 2008 Tony winner in many ways surpasses his more famous work in emotional resonance. (For the record, I like "Hamilton," but I was quite content to watch it on Disney+ and not pay a week's salary to see it on Broadway or at the Kennedy Center." The show depicts a scorching Fourth of July weekend in Washington Heights, seen primarily through the eyes of Usnavi de la Vega (Oscar Salvador, Jr.) an orphan who runs one of the countless corner bodegas that provide coffee, sandwiches, and other essentials for New Yorkers. Usnavi's unique name comes from the sight of a U.S. Navy ship spied by his expectant parents as they first sailed into NYC from the Dominican Republic-a bit too precious, in my opinion. Usnavi, who was raised by the barrio's Cuban matriarch Abuela Claudia, (Bruni Herring)dreams of reutrning to his native land and buying a house on the beach.

Subplots abound, the most significant of which is the story of Nina, (Ixchel Hernandez) a local girl who returns after her first year at Stanford University, where she earned a scholarship. We learn that she lost the scholarship due to being overworked and that she chafes under the expectations her enighbors have for her as the girl who "made it." When Nina's parents Kevin (Alex Lopez) and Camila Rosario (Janice Rivera) learn the news, Kevin unilaterally determines to sell the family's car service to pay for her tuition, angering Nina and Camila and alienating his employee (and Nina's love interest) Benny (Kaylen Morgan), an African American friend of Usnavi's. Elsewhere, Usnavi shyly attempts, with the help of his lazy but goodhearted young assistant Sonny to court Vanessa (Graciela Rey), the employees of the local nail salon prepare to close to move to a new location, a graffiti artist practices his craft, a piragua salesman competes with the Mr. Softee truck, and just before the blackout,it's learned that Usnavi's store has sold a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The character's stories engagingly explore questions of love, the nature of family, and first generation American identity. While the play is not overtly political in nature, the portrait of an immigrant community populated by flawed but relatable people with hopes, loves, and dreams, provides a welcome corrective to the xenophobia and bigotry that has been so en vogue of late.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Salvador anchors the performance with his lively portrayal of the good-natured Usnavi. Hernandez and Morgan are engaging and touching as the star-crossed lovers, and Lopez delivers a particularly sharp portrait of a hard-working family man torn between his hopes for his daughter and fear of becoming the uncompromising, traditionalist father he fled.

Director Elena Velasco and choreographer Stegan Sittig stage the show's musical numbers with flair and verve. Scenic designer Mariana Fernandez makes good use of the small black box theater. The audience has the feeling of being part of the tight-knit community we watch.

"In the Heights" runs at NextStop Theatre in Herndon through June 11.


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