Review: Musical Theatre West Presents Vibrant New Production of IN THE HEIGHTS
Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
These days, when you hear the name Lin-Manuel Miranda, a few superlatives immediately spring to mind: He's the in-demand artist who was tapped to co-write many of the songs in Disney's hit animated film "Moana." He's one of the many outspoken public advocates for immigrant rights in the U.S. and has been among the many at the forefront of relief efforts for the devastated American territory of Puerto Rico, the homeland of his parents. And, of course, he is the genius creator and former lead star of the stage musical HAMILTON, his critically-acclaimed, audience-beloved 2015 Tony Award-winning Broadway juggernaut that introduced millions to the hip-hop/soul flavored, multi-racial retelling of one of America's most important Founding Fathers.
But like most stories, everything has a beginning. Miranda, of course, shot up to the upper echelons of the stage stratosphere first with a more inward, more personal musical that would itself go on to be a Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical also: IN THE HEIGHTS. Originally conceived by Miranda—and featuring music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes—this Pulitzer Prize-nominated musical debuted on Broadway in 2008 (after successful tryouts in Connecticut and off-Broadway) and was immediately embraced by critics and audiences for its colorful, authentically-tinged stories, its lively, culturally-embracing music, and because of the star-making turn by its charming, rhyme-spewing star/creator that gave Broadway its first 21st Century contemporary musical set in the mostly Latin-American barrio of Washington Heights in New York City.
Told as a series of interweaving vignettes about the highs and lows—and the dreams and realities—of life in the neighborhood, IN THE HEIGHTS offers audiences a very likable three-day glimpse into a specific multi-generational Latinx experience that not only feels fresh and new but also feels remarkably relatable no matter what background you come from. Miranda—armed with first-hand knowledge of living in such an enclave and with the obvious imbedded DNA of a musical theatre aficionado—easily made the material both universally appealing and yet refreshingly unique… at least in terms of its specific point-of-view.
Though perhaps there may be too many stories involved in IN THE HEIGHTS (leaving other characters less fleshed-out in the process), it is still easy to feel connected to the relatable stories Miranda concocts—so much so that even the many Spanish words used abundantly in the musical hardly needs translation. The sass and attitude in "No Me Diga," the anxious self-reflection of "Inutil," the hopeful ferocity of "Paciencia Y Fe," and the devastating heartbreak of "Alabanza"—all spoke to all of us, even if we didn't speak the language.
After a well-received US Tour (including a special L.A. Tour stop for us lucky SoCal folks that featured Miranda reprising the role) and subsequent productions worldwide, the musical has now been springing up in many regional theaters across the nation, boosted, of course, by audiences eager to check out Miranda's earlier musical effort, that is, if they didn't already see it the first time.
In its own way, seeing IN THE HEIGHTS now—especially in a Broadway-caliber production like this one—feels very much like looking back at an earlier piece of work from a now more evolved artist and seeing signs of the burgeoning genius still to come—and just how far that genius really grew.
Yes, presenting IN THE HEIGHTS as Musical Theatre West's 65th Season opening production is an inspired, winning choice—and not just because Miranda's highly, in-demand HAMILTON is playing less than an hour north of Long Beach. Now performing at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts through November 5, this admirable production directed by Benjamin Perez is also quite relevant now more than ever, as it examines the pursuit of the American Dream from the point of view of both immigrants and their children now immersed in American livelihoods. The show asks: Is the Washington Heights neighborhood an unavoidable hindrance or a necessary stepping-stone towards achieving that dream?
In a rather smart move, MTW's production is, on the surface, fairly reminiscent of the original production but yet feels a bit more casual and easygoing in its approach. It is also populated with an impressive gathering of new local talent that makes the musical worth revisiting.
Music-wise, the production is top-notch. Musical Director Dennis Castellano leads the show's orchestra well, providing a lively Latin soundtrack. As a composer and lyricist, Miranda, here, is already showing terrific promise, particularly in his ballad writing and rap word-smithing, which this production's cast admirably revives. During the more uptempo, celebratory songs, the show pretty much transforms into a joyful party.
Visually, the musical is almost a carbon copy of the original, from the sets and costumes down to the seemingly Andy Blankenbuehler-inspired lyrical movement and choreography by Hector Guerrero. Even Jean-Yves Tessier's dazzling lighting design recalls touchpoints of the original. But what makes this production a bit more enjoyable, however, is its very palpable enhanced sense of vibrant energy—all emanating from a new cast bursting with endearing eagerness to please.
Ignoring some isolated "it's just not for me" grumbles I heard from the older matinee crowd I attended, I must say that I was surprisingly impressed with this production, and, more specifically, this production's ensemble.
Led by the charismatic Perry Young, who offers a sexier, more adorable take on Usnavi, the shy but friendly corner Bodega owner struggling to keep his business afloat in the neighborhood, MTW's IN THE HEIGHTS features many standout performances that will have you cheering on the characters.
Fierce belter Alyssa Gomez does a great job as conflicted Stanford University freshman Nina Rosario, a young lady back home for the summer and quite determined not to disappoint her parents despite mounting pressure to succeed and for being one of the first in her family (and, heck, in the neighborhood) to pursue a degree. Carleton Bluford offers buttery-smooth vocals as Benny, the guy vying for Nina's heart who also happens to be the only non-Latino working at Nina's parents' local car/cab service business. Speaking of Nina's parents, they're played respectively by Mario Rocha and Elvira Barjua, who both turn in excellent portrayals as a devoted and determined couple also struggling to keep the business running while proudly providing the funds for Nina's education.
Elsewhere, there's Candida Celaya who is quite wonderful as the neighborhood's beloved Abuela Claudia, a role and a portrayal that will easily gain your sincere affections. Her unwavering confidence in Usnavi and Nina speak of the character’s resilience. Also getting her own storyline is the vivacious Vanessa, (played by the gorgeous Teresa Castillo), a young woman aching to move away and launch her own salon far from her familiar surroundings. Castillo's so-cute scenes with Young's lovestruck Usnavi will make you smile, as will her scenes with her hilarious salon sisters Carla (Merissa Haddad) and Daniela (scene-stealing Briana Bonilla, who had me cracking up and paying very close attention to her singing chops). Even in this earlier musical, you can already tell Miranda savors writing interesting female characters.
Rounding out the main cast is Andrew Joseph Perez who plays goofball Sonny, Usnavi's younger, more naive cousin. His buddy "Graffiti Pete" is played by Luis Martinez. EJ Cardona provides plenty of awesome musical interstitials as the Piragua guy.
Overall, MTW should be especially proud of their production of Miranda's first Tony-winning musical. With high production values and a well-assembled cast, this is a great way to experience this show for the first or the twentieth time.
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Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of IN THE HEIGHTS continue through Sunday, November 5, 2017. Due to high demand, an additional 6 pm performance has been added for November 5. The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.