In The Heights, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008, now gets its very first Los Angeles regional staging—an under-the-radar intimate production in L.A.’s own (Boyle) Heights that is so sensational it deserves to be on any musical theater fan’s radar throughout the month of December, and hopefully beyond.

 The Heights celebrated in In The Heights are up-up-uptown Manhattan’s Washington Heights, whose residents’ show-stopping “Carnaval Del Barrio” is but one of the highlights of one of the most thrilling, entertaining, and emotionally powerful musicals in the half-century since West Side Story first brought Latino-American culture and rhythms to the Broadway stage.

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 neighborhood where, 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 young, uniquely named Dominican immigrant brought to life on Broadway by Miranda himself and played here by Michael Torrenueva, just one of many gifted young triple-threats in this fresh, exciting staging.

Usnavi (I won’t spoil the surprise of how he got his name!) 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 (Parissa Koo), 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 (Benjamin Perez) and Camila (Graciela Valderrama). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (James Oronoz) 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 (Melissa Anjose), 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 (Chrissi Erickson) at Daniela’s salon, a beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Vivian Lamolli) and about to close its doors forever.

There’s also Sonny (Phillip Garcia), Usnavi’s impish teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Felix Sotelo), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Chris Marcos), whose street art will prove of supreme importance in Usnavi’s life.

 Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Carole Anne Salerno), 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 only 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 WSS.

 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 draconian 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 one of its twenty-six cast members the chance to shine, from principals to ensemble, the latter of whom create a 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 or launching into an impromptu dance just for the fun of it.

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. But no matter. This is a musical after all, and a refreshingly upbeat change of pace from its 1950s predecessor.

In The (Boyle) Heights marks the first English language production of Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, and as such ought to bring the five-year-old company into the L.A. theater spotlight.

 Directed with talent, panache, and lots of Latin sabor by Rigo Tejada, In The Heights L.A. introduces an excitingly talented cast of young performers, beginning with the oh-so winning Torrenueva, following quite niftily in composer-lyricist Miranda’s footsteps, investing Usnavi with power, wit, and depth.

A trio of supporting performances stand out in particular.

The role of Nina marks a stellar Southern California debut for Los Gatos native Koo, who not only captivates as the good daughter returning home in shame, but sings with a gorgeous soprano belt, a must for a musical theater leading lady these days. (Wicked producers, are you looking for a new Elphaba?)

I can’t imagine a more charismatic performance than Garcia’s as Usnavi’s feisty young cousin, so much so that you can’t take your eyes off  teenage scamp Sonny whenever Garcia is onstage.

 As for beauty shop owner Daniela, it’s hard to imagine anyone with more electricidad than the scene-stealing Lamolli, who must surely have West Side Story’s Anita in her future.

As for the rest of Usnavi’s friends and family, they are an all-around fabuloso bunch as well, beginning with Perez, who brings strength and resonant vocals to the proud, intolerant, but ultimately loving Kevin, a role he played in In The Heights 2nd (non-union) National Tour last year. A vibrant Valderrama gives Camila maternal warmth and fire. Power-piped Salerno manages to convince us that she is three times her age as Abuela Claudia. Oronoz is every bit as dynamic as Benny as he was in his recent turn as John in Candlelight Pavilion’s Miss Saigon, playing the role with strength, vulnerability, and pride. A stunning Anjose gives us a sexy, multi-layered Vanessa, Erickson is a delightfully appealing Carla, and Sotelo makes the very most of golden-voiced Piragua Guy’s “Piragua.” As for street smart Graffiti Pete, it would be hard to find a more phenomenal dancer than (co-dance captain) Marcos, who acts the part with ample charm as well.

 Executing the non-stop salsa, merengue, and b-boying dance moves of choreographic whiz Daniel Lazareno (remember that name!) is a terrific young ensemble made up of Andy Eubanks, vocal captain Daniel Ferguson, Brittany Freeth, Daniel Gallardo, associate choreographer Marissa Herrera, Fernando Nunez, Brenda Perez, Yvonne Senat, co-dance captain April Sheets, and Shafik Wahhab.

Taking Anna Louizo’s Tony-nominated set design as his inspiration, scenic designer Marco De Leon effectively recreates Unsavi’s vecindad on a considerably more intimate scale. Abel Alvarado’s fabulous costumes more than stand up to Paul Tazewell’s Tony-nominated originals. Donny Jackson’s lighting design is vibrant and dramatic, and sound designer Alysha Bermudez’s subtle effects remind us we are in the heart of urban New York.

Providing expert backup is the sensational In The Heights band, conducted by keyboardist Brian Michael, with Serafin Aguilar on trumpet, Bill Von Ravensberg on bass, and Michael Partlow on drums/percussion.

TNH’s production of In The Heights is such a winner that the only way to improve it would be to up the amplification of vocals (by adding an extra mike or two far downstage?) and to lower the band’s volume enough that dialog and vocal performances get heard as they should be.

Perez (the production’s Kevin) is creative consultant. Lena Marie is music coordinator, Carlos Perez business manager, Angela Cruz stage manager, and Carole Solis assistant stage manager.

I would probably not have heard of In The Heights’ regional premiere had it not been for cast member Oronoz’s telling me about it. Hopefully, this review will help get the word out that In The Heights has arrived in L.A.—and quite spectacularly so.

My advice to you is: See the show, then Facebook your friends, tweet about it, and help spread the news. Teatro Nuevos Horizontes’ In The Heights deserves to have its every performance Standing Room Only.

CASA 0101 Theater, 2102 East 1st Street, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
December 2, 2012

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