BWW Review: IN THE HEIGHTS at Music Theatre Wichita, Immigrants Get the Job Done
According to 'fake' news sources, during the 2016 presidential election Hispanics made up about eleven percent of the electorate which was up ten percent from 2012. An estimated 58.9 million Hispanic people live in the United States comprising eighteen percent of the American population. Furthermore, one in seven U.S. residents is foreign born, including you, the reader. In 2018, over 106,147 asylum seeker applications were presented to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. With these kinds of statistical facts, it can be inferred immigration is certainly on the rise, especially those searching for a safe haven in the supposedly United States who come from countries of violence, persecution, and turmoil of their own. Immigration has always made America great bringing varied values while creating a true melting pot. And as the lyrics say in Lin Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton, "immigrants, we get the job done." Sure, you can point fingers and say I'm a millennial living at home with mom and dad and have no inclination of the outside real world or know the importance of a job, but as a privileged Irish American white male actor, I have witnessed time and time again these hard working immigrants 'getting the job done' at restaurant and customer service jobs to help support their own American dream of simple inclusion and sense of belonging. Jobs which no one truly likes to work. From dishwashers, to construction workers, to asylum seeking students, there is nothing these refugees will do to try to assimilate and make America their newfound home. Such themes were presented at Music Theatre Wichita's 2019 season closer In the Heights also written by Lin Manuel Miranda which ran from August 7th-11th at Century II Concert Hall.
The title, which was derived from the New York City neighborhood Washington Heights of rags to riches writer Miranda, is special to me having lived in the same community. But nothing was off limits in Music Theatre Wichita's season closer In the Heights. From politics, to family heritage and diversity, interracial romance, to even 'good old boy' Donald Trump and the pursuit of living the American dream, the production was a progressive show selection for Wayne Bryan and team having never done the show. That's right. Our own hometown of Wichita is finally becoming more progressive with open-minded titles, writing, and all-around theatre. One small step in that direction was the pre-show Latino music which was played. In all my years of attending MTW shows, I had never ever heard pre-show music and yet this year in 2019, we had artists such as Selena singing 'Bidi Bidi Bom Bom' over the loud speaker before the opening curtain. Another feat to the usual style presented by the regional theatre company was rap and hip-hop songs dispersed in between legato music theatre ballad standards among performers very familiar to the musical. Leading the cast was Camila Paquet as Nina. Her rendition of 'Breathe' was done beautifully with good, legit soprano breath as well as appropriately placed riffs reminding me of famed singer Ariana Grande. It's apparent she will have a successful musical theatre career. Opposite Paquet was Grasan Kingsberry as the romantic interest. Kingsberry was charming, particularly during his introduction to the audience for 'Benny's Dispatch' a number presenting both his character and attraction to Nina. Both Paquet and Kingsberry sang together beautifully for their duets. As Nina's father, Danny Bolero takes the reigns as Kevin, which in my humble opinion is one of the most difficult roles to play in the show because he gets a challenging ballad 'Inútil (Useless).' These types of sing, song and storytelling refrains are very difficult to pace and keep the audience's undivided attention but Balero accomplished the task with ease, precision, and strong evolving acting choices. Transitions were smooth leading to the next few scenes at the hair salon and bodega. Now, a bodega is like a Hispanic or Latin mini-mart giving Duane Reade and Walgreens a run for their money throughout Manhattan. They are rampant in Washington Heights and filled with fast, Spanish-speaking customers. Life imitates art here with actresses Katja Rivera Yanko (Daniela) and Mikaela Secada (Carla). At times it was difficult to fully grasp what they were saying, but they were very accurate in their thick Hispanic accents and dialects, especially as they truthfully stated apartment rent increasing during 'No Me Diga (You Don't Say).' The best song of the entire production was however'96,000' discussing the idea of winning the lottery and how it would change the lives of those stuck in their own circumstances. Showcasing his voice and acting was Alex Aponte as Sonny. Aponte had a surprisingly nice contemporary voice comparable to a boy band heartthrob such as Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake. Graffiti Pete played by Anthony Giandiletti displayed his hip hop dancing skills with handstands and flips amidst contraband, smooth stage combat, and crime for his character. It was Ernie Pruenda as lead Usavi de la Vega who embodied Lin Manuel Miranda and rapped in time perfectly. Alma Cuervo as Abuela Claudia sang Paciencia y Fe following with ease. For the act one finally, Gabriella Enriquez made a wonderful appearance again as lady in red salsa dancing to club music stunningly. I kept thinking throughout the entire production how great of a director Carlos Mendoza was and what a difference having a good director makes in staging choices and authenticity for his accurate storytelling. I will say act two came off more relaxed for the performers having gotten through most of the exposition in the previous act which meant it ran smoother and more comfortable for all parties involved. I'd also be remised in not mentioning Jonathan Arana as the Piragua Guy who sang his Greek chorus song with passion, heart, and great tone.
The set really captured the Washington Bridge and the scenes and feel of Washington Heights. Logan Greenwell can claim responsibility for this accomplishment. Choreography by Mendoza as well was modern and effective especially adding one dancer and then two more and more others for the final number. Lighting designed by Adam Honoré projected ethnic-inspired gobos on stage during important moments and hits to beats of the music conducted by Thomas W. Douglass, now in his 20th season at MTW. Costumes designed by Danita Lee were street worthy and capable of being changed quickly. An example of such a quick change was from "Carnaval del Barrio" to "Alabanza." Finally, properties designed by Anna Rosell were carefully thought out and used in several dance numbers, including flags or banderas celebrating culture and origin.
In the Heights was a perfect season closer and was a new addition to Music Theatre Wichita's repertoire. It is even nominated for best city wide musical in this year's 2019 Mary Jane Teall Theatre Awards being held later next month on Monday, September 23rd at 7:00 PM at Roxy's Downtown. In the meantime, Wayne Bryan has begun planning for the 2020 season which was announced with Grease ( June 10-14), The Wizard of Oz (June 24-28), Something Rotten (July 8-12), Twelfth Night (July 22-26) and Kinky Boots (August 5-9). All are new show titles except for The Wizard of Oz, a production I appeared in fourteen years ago. For tickets, be sure to call 265-3107 or visit mtwichita.org.