San Diego REPertory Theatre opens its 38th season with an exciting, from-the-ground-up production of In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning slice of Nueva York life, the professional component of which is just about as perfect as it gets.

Heights 161 - photo credit Daren Scott006  Winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical, In The Heights celebrates 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.

Heights 10 Jai Rodriguez - photo credit Daren Scott002 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 Jai Rodriguez in a performance that will prove revelatory to those who know the handsome and talented triple-threat only from his appearances as the “Culture Vulture” in Bravo TV’s Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.

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 (Chelsea Diggs-Smith), 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 (Mauricio Mendoza) and Camila (Roxane Carrasco). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Desmond Newson) 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 (Danielle Moné Truitt), 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 (Krista Barnes) at Daniela’s salon, a beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Susanna Peredo Swap) and about to close its doors forever.

Heights 91 Michael S. Garcia - photo credit Daren Scott020 Heights 187  Desmond Newson - photo credit Daren Scott010
There’s also Sonny (Michael S. Garcia), Usnavi’s impish teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Victor Chan), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Spencer Smith), whose street art will prove of supreme importance in Usnavi’s life.

Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Susan Denaker), 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/Blackout,” 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.”

Heights 168 - photo credit Daren Scott007 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.

Heights 48 Desmond Newson (center raised platform) - photo credit Daren Scott016 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.

In addition to the abovementioned principals, In The Heights features a large supporting cast of nameless characters who 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.

Heights 47 Jai Rodriguez (center) - photo credit Daren Scott015 Directed by San Diego REP Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse with an attention to creating rich, fully-three dimensional lead characters, the REP’s In The Heights stars a Jai Rodriguez utterly unlike his previous starring roles as everybody’s gay best friend Zanna in Zanna, Don’t! and as the ebullient but doomed Angel in Rent. Rodriguez not only has the star quality necessary to fill In The Heights creator Miranda’s award-winning shoes, his raptastic performance is as infectiously charming and richly-layered as it gets.

Heights 124 L-R Krista Barnes, Chelsea Diggs-Smith, Susanna Peredo Swap, Danielle Mone' Truitt - photo credit Daren Scott005 Surrounding Rodriguez are eleven of San Diego’s top triple-threat performers, who make Miranda’s eclectic cast of characters indelibly their own, from Diggs-Smith’s frightened but feisty Nina to Mendoza’s towering Kevin to Carrasco’s fiery Camila. Swap and Barnes are terrific together as the spicy Daniela and her ditzy sidekick Carla.

Heights 91 Michael S. Garcia - photo credit Daren Scott020  Heights 187  Desmond Newson - photo credit Daren Scott010
Garcia couldn’t be more winning as spunky, sassy Sonny, nor could Newson as Nina’s very own personal heartthrob Benny. Smith shows off sensational dance skills as Graffiti Pete and Chan sensational pipes as Piragua Guy.

Like all of the above, Truitt is a gifted singer/dancer, but her Vanessa seems to have grown up in an entirely different neighborhood than Usnavi, Nina, and Sonny, something that a bit of dialect coaching might have remedied.

Heights 180  Susan Denaker - photo credit Daren Scott009 Best of all among supporting players is Denaker’s vibrant Abuela, the veteran actress taking an already well-written part and making her—along with Miranda’s Usnavi—the heart and soul of this production. And caray, can this abuela sing!

Choreographer Javier Velasco and assistant choreographer/dance captain Smith have created one salsational dance number after another, and when the Lyceum Theatre stage is filled with over two dozen singing-dancing Heights-ites, the energy and enthusiasm is contagious.

Unfortunately, however, with the exception of adult ensemble members Joseph Almohaya, Brian Bose, and Patrick Mayuyu, the middle and high school students who make up the rest of the cast (In The Heights is being presented in partnership with the San Diego School Of Creative And Performing Arts) come across as just that, terrifically talented arts school students, but out of place in a musical that works best when cast with older performers. Missing too, is a sense that each of these teens is playing a character with his or her own life story to tell.

Heights 667 -photo credit Daren Scott017 That being said, Kevin Burroughs, Samantha Canela, Clifton Hayes, Victoria Capuchino, Gezelle Custudio, Deja Fields, Joshua Isaiah Foster, Daechelle Hernandez, Jordan Humphries, Kamryn Harris, Tayshiana Narcisse, Mileena Rogers, and Kaiya Young have much to offer the world of musical theater in years to come.

This In The Heights sounds as sensational as it gets, offstage singers Ryan Dietrich, Yasmin Ruiz, Rodnalyn Sese, and Katie Ward adding four extra voices to ensemble numbers under the expert supervision of musical director Andrew Bearden, who (along with John Reynolds) conducts a couldn’t-be-better thirteen-piece orchestra. In fact, you’d never guess that all but Spencer Ford (Trumpet 1) are SDSCPA students. (They are Eric Askew, Josh Baesas, Julian Davis, Frank Engel, Julian Esparza, Benjamin Goniea, Jarien Jaminila, Warren Lincoln, Aubrey Lozano, Juliet Sangalang, TJ Smith, and Johnny Steele.)

Principal roles are understudied by Almohaya, Bose, Burroughs, Canela, Carrasco, Chan, Custudio, Christopher DeSousa, Hernandez, and Debbie Nicastro.

Scenic designer Sean Fanning has transformed the Lyceum stage into Usnavi’s vibrant Washington Heights neighborhood, one filled with all the Latin American color and calor of Miranda’s words and music. Trevor Norton’s exciting lighting design makes Fanning’s set look all the more colorful and picante. Valerie Henderson’s costumes reflect each character’s fashion choices, with an extra bit of fabulous thrown in. Danielle Griffith’s wigs are so real-looking, it came as a shock to see several of the actresses appear in their own hair after the show. Tom Jones’ sound design allows us to hear dialog, vocals, and instrumentals, mixed to perfection.

Heather M. Brose is stage manager and Jennifer Sears is assistant stage manager. Richard Trujillo assistant director, Sarah Mendez assistant costume designer, and Hannah DeWitt assistant lighting director.

Though it doesn’t quite reach the heights that a bit of minor tweaking and an all-adult cast would take it to, San Diego REP’s 38th Season Opener provides an excellent introduction to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ground-breaking Broadway hit to In The Heights newbies, and for those like this reviewer who’ve visited Usnavi’s barrio before, es un verdadero placer* to be back In The Heights.

*It’s a real pleasure

Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 4, 2013
Photos: Daren Scott

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