When West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957, one might have assumed that sometime over the following half century, another hit Broadway musical would center on Latino life in New York City, or on Latino life anywhere for that matter. It would, after all, make sense for a musical as revolutionary as West Side Story to engender others that followed its ground-breaking example, right?
Wrong. Lightning didn’t strike twice for another fifty-one years, not until In The Heights debuted at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in February of 2008, becoming only the second musical latino to score a Best Musical Tony nomination—and in fact the very first one to win, West Side Story having lost out to The Music Man.
For this reason alone, In The Heights deserves a street carnival, the kind its Washington Heights residents stage in the show-stopping “Carnaval Del Barrio.” That the show also happens to be one of the most thrilling, entertaining, and emotionally powerful Broadway musicals in the half century since West Side Story is icing on a very sabrosacake.
With music and lyrics by its original Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, In The Heights turns its audience into flies on the walls of the Washington Heights brownstones that loom high in Anna Louizos’s spectacular set design, now on display in the sensational First National Tour, making its latest stop at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Over the course of In The Heights’ three-day timeframe, we get to know and care about an entire neighborhood of Latin American immigrants to the United States, most of whom come from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
In The Heights’ thrilling ten-minute opening sequence introduces us to Usnavi, a character originated on Broadway by Miranda himself and played here by a simply marvelous and utterly winning Joseph Morales. This young, peculiarly named Dominican immigrant is the owner of a Washington Heights bodega, and his syncopated raps about his life and those of his family and friends alert us from the get-go that we’re in for something out of the ordinary in musical theater.
We also meet Nina Rosario (Arielle Jacobs), the first in the vecindad to go to college (Stanford University no less), who’s returned home with a secret she’s terrified to reveal to her proud-as-peacocks parents Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila (Natalie Toro). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African American Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.) works as a dispatcher and harbors a not-so-secret crush on Nina.
Also forming part of In The Heights’ core cast of characters is Vanessa (Lexi Lawson), the object of Usnavi’s affection, a leggy chica who’s got dreams (and money troubles) of her own. Vanessa works alongside born-again cutie Carla (Genny Lis Padilla) at Daniela’s salon, a beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and about to close its doors forever.
There’s also Sonny (Christopher Chatman), Usnavi’s impish teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (David Baida), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Jose-Luis Lopez), whose street art will prove of supreme importance in Usnavi’s life.
Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Elise Santora), the neighborhood matriarch who has been Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother since the death of his parents years ago.
Quite a few of these characters reveal their hopes and dreams in musical soliloquies—Nina’s “Breathe,” Vanessa’s “It Won’t Be Long Now,” Kevin’s “Inutil” (Useless), Abuela Claudia’s “Paciencia Y Fe” (Patience And Faith), and even Piragua Man’s “Piragua.” Other musical genres which find their voice in In The Heights are Usnavi’s “salsarap” songs, the Caribbean rhythms of “96,000,” “The Club/Fireworks,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio,” and the kind of “conversation songs” usually found in sung-through musicals: “Enough,” “Champagne,” and the Rent-esque “When The Sun Goes Down.”
Together, this catchy, danceable, eclectic mix of songs make up In The Heights’ longer-than-usual “soundtrack” (the Original Cast CD contains about ninety minutes of music on two discs) and give the score a sabor latino not heard on Broadway since West Side Story.
Besides being as entertaining as any musical now on the Great White Way, In The Heights is about as socially important a musical as has been seen on Broadway since Lieutenant Joe Cable first sang about racial prejudice in South Pacific. The people we meet in In The Heights are no different from those being demonized by Arizona’s “tough” new immigration law, and just as homophobia often comes from those who don’t know a single gay or lesbian person, in the same way racism thrives when Americans see the Latino community as “the other.” In The Heights shows us how very alike we all are, and it’s hard to imagine even the most conservative theatergoer’s heart not being changed for good from having spent a few hours with Usnavi, Abuela, y los demás.
In The Heights doesn’t shy away from racism within the Latino community, as we find out when Kevin learns that his daughter is falling for his chief dispatcher, who happens to be African American. Ultimately, though, Miranda’s musical is about familia and comunidad—the village that it takes to raise Usnavi and Sonny and Nina from childhood to adulthood.
This joyous musical gives every member of its large cast the chance to shine, from principals to ensemble members, the latter of whom create the vibrant backdrop of life in Washington Heights, whether going about their daily lives in their walk-up apartments or out in the sweltering open air of a summer in New York.
Hudes’ book does try to pack a lot of storylines into its two acts, including news that one of Usnavi’s customers has picked the winning Lotto number (grand prize $96,000) followed by considerable speculation about who that might be, and plot threads do tend to get tied up more neatly than they would in real life. Thankfully, Tony-nominated director Thomas Kail insures that his actors dig deep into the hearts and souls of the characters they are playing, elevating the script higher than it might come across on the printed page. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler merits equal praise for In The Heights’ thrilling Tony-winning dance sequences, which combine breakdance moves with salsa and meringue, all of them executed to perfection by a supremely talented ensemble.
Besides the stellar work of Morales as Usnavi, there are standout performances galore in In The Heights, from Bolero’s proud, intolerant, but ultimately loving Kevin to Toro’s mix of maternal warmth and fire as Camila to Chatman’s adorably cocky Sonny. There’s also Santora’s powerful turn as Abuela Claudia and the sexy, sassy duo of Santiago and Padilla as the beauty shop girls. Jacobs couldn’t be more captivating as Nina, Lawson brings the same electricity to Vanessa that she must have to Mimi in the most recent National Tour of Rent, and Douglas gives Benny just the right blend of strength, vulnerability, and pride. Completing the dozen principals in smaller yet significant roles are the terrific duo of Baida as the golden voiced Piragua Guy and Lopez as the street smart Graffiti Pete.
The Opening Night ensemble (Sandy Alvarez, Christina Black, Natalie Caruncho, Oscar Cheda, Wilkie Ferguson, Rayanne Gonzales, Morgan Matatoshi, April Ortiz, Joel Perez, Antuan Raimone, and Carlos Salazar) simply could not have been better, bona fide Broadway-caliber triple threats each and every one.
The work of In The Heights’ Tony-nominated design team demonstrates what Broadway talent (and bucks) can create, from Louizos’ breathtaking set, with the George Washington Bridge leading out of The Heights across the river to Queens, to Paul Tazewell’s multicolored costumes, to Howell Binkley’s vivid lighting, to Acme Pound Partner’s crystal clear sound design. In addition, there are Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman’s gorgeous Tony-winning orchestrations, the multitalented Lacamoire also serving as musical director. In The Height’s salsarific nine-piece band is conducted by Justin Mendoza, with Cian McCarthy associate conductor. Marian DeWitt is production stage manager.
As In The Heights now reaches the end of its two-month stay in Southern California, Southland theatergoers are hereby advised that the current Costa Mesa engagement will be their last chance to see this Broadway smash locally for who knows how long. From its awesome start to its stirring finish, In The Heights is modern musical theater at its finest. Es un musical a no perder. In other word, it is not to be missed.
Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
August 3, 2010
Photos: Chelsea Lauren, Joan Marcus