Usnavi, Vanessa, Benny, Nina, Sonny, Daniela, Piragua Man, and all the colorful Washington Heights locals of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ In The Heights are back in the Heights (Boyle Heights that is) as Teatro Nuevos Horizontes’ multiple Scenie-winning production of the 2008 Broadway hit returns for this year’s holiday season with four of its original stars intact and many of its new principal players living up to memories of last year’s all-around phenomenal leads.


As any Broadway buff can tell you, the Tony-winning Best Musical five seasons back celebrates up-up-uptown Manhattan’s Washington Heights, whose residentes’ 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 leading man Miranda and book by Hudes, In The Heights turns its audience into flies on the walls of the Washington Heights neighborhood where, over the course of its three-day time frame, 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.

Photo 11 - (l to r) Michael Torrenueva (Usnavi) and Valeria Maldonado (Vanessa)  IH_B0348 copy 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 Best Lead Actor Scenie winner Michael Torrenueva, whose return in the role is but one reason to head on over to Casa 101 Theater in East L.A.-adjacent Boyle Heights.

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.

Photo 6 - (l to r) Veronica Rosa (Nina), Martica De Cardenas (Camila Rosario) and Luis Marquez (Kevin Rosario IH_A0724 copy We also meet Nina Rosario (Veronica Rosa), 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 (Luis Marquez) and Camila (Martica De Cardenas). 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.

Photo 10 - (l to r) Vivian Lamolli (Daniela), Valeria Maldonado (Vanessa), IH_A0328 copy Also forming part of In The Heights’ core cast of characters is Vanessa (Valeria Maldonado), 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 the local beauty salon run by sassy Daniela (Vivian Lamolli), who’s about to close the salon de belleza’s doors forever and move from the Heights to the Hood.

Anastasia-Silva-James-Oronoz-Santos-Hemenway-and-Michael-Torreneuva There’s also Sonny (Rehyan Rivera), Usnavi’s impish teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Michael David Romero), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Santos Hemenway), whose street art will prove of supreme importance in Usnavi’s life.

Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Anastasia Silva), 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 “Inútil” (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.”

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.

Last year’s In The (Boyle) Heights marked the first English language venture of Teatro Nuevos Horizontes, which co-produces this year with Casa 0101, and since it took a while for word to get out about its arrival last December, the Rigo Tejada-directed production ended up closing just when folks were beginning to fill the theater, reason enough to celebrate this return engagement with the talented Tejada once again directing with mucho panache and abundant sabor latino (and a few new tricks up his sleeve).

Photo 11 - (l to r) Michael Torrenueva (Usnavi) and Valeria Maldonado (Vanessa)  IH_B0348 copy In The Heights 2.0 benefits enormously from Torrenueva’s return as Usnavi, the instantly likeable Costa Mesa native investing the role with even more power, wit, and depth this time round.

Audiences can be thankful too that Best Featured Actress Scenie winner Lamolli has returned as beauty shop owner Daniela*, a role she once again performs with the biggest voice in town and so much electricidad, you think no one would notice when a blackout leaves Washington Heights powerless.

The dynamic and velvet-voiced Oronoz is back as well, once again investing Benny with strength, vulnerability, and pride, and the bubbly Erickson makes a welcome return too as Daniela’s faithful (though not quite sharp-as-a-tack) sidekick Carla.

By far the best among In The Heights newbies is recent AMDA BFA grad Rosa, who sings and acts Nina with ball-of-fire passion, ample heart, and believable chemistry with her romantic partner Oronoz.

Rehyan-Rivera-Valeria-Maldonado-and-Michael-Torrenueva Hemenway couldn’t be a more break-dance-tastic Graffiti Pete, Piragua Guy Romero lends warmth and golden-throated vocals to “Piragua,” Rivera plays Usnavi’s feisty young cousin Sonny with engaging teenage charm and sass, and Maldonado too has her effective moments as the sultry Vanessa.

Marquez and De Cardena are on the right track with their Kevin and Camilla, but both could dig deeper to make the former’s “Inutil” and the latter’s “Enough” the gut-wrenching showstoppers they can be.

Photo 9 - (l to r) Michael Torrenueva (Usnavi) and Anastasia Silva (Abuela Claudia) IH_B0291 copy The one truly false note this time round is Silva, not that there’s anything lacking in her powerful (and power-voiced) performance as Abuela Claudia. It’s simply that casting a pretty 20something as the neighborhood’s time-worn grandmother, plopping a Halloween granny wig on her head, and drawing a few lines on her face proves too much of a credibility strain in a production in which virtually everyone else is cast age-appropriately.

Dance ensemble members Andreas Pantazis (Domingo), Iselle Peña (Yolanda), Katherine Washington (Oreo), and a particularly appealing Eric Stanton Betts (Jose) fill their cameos with energía and verve. Child performers Onin Tonatiuh and Yocani Tonatiuh alternate in a brief but moving appearance as “Young Kevin.”

Choreographer Daniel Lazareno De Dios won deserved kudos for his non-stop salsa, merengue, and b-boying dance steps in last year’s In The Heights and this year’s choreography may be even better, with plenty of fresh new moves by his terrifically talented ensemble, which also includes Shay Louise, returnee Fernando Nuñez, Jessie Ortiz, associate choreographer Tanya Possick, and Andrea Somera.

Photo 5 - The Cast of Casa 0101 Theater's and Teatro Nuevo Horizontes' IH_A0406 copy These ensemble members 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. Not only this, but each has created his or her own back-story, making these Heights residents far more than cardboard cutouts. That being said, there are times when less would be more, namely in moments when these back-stories distract from dramatic songs and scenes being played by principals.

As he did last year, scenic designer Marco De Leon effectively recreates Unsavi’s vecindad on an intimate scale. Abel Alvarado’s fabulous costumes are once again visual treats, whether contemporary Washington Heights streetwear or the nifty 1940s garb he’s whipped up for Abuela Claudia’s flashback. Sound designer/sound board operator Alysha Bermudez returns with subtle effects reminding us we are in the heart of urban New York. New to the design team is Joshua Cuellar, whose lighting is both vivid and dramatic.

Providing expert live backup is the sensational four-piece In The Heights band, ably conducted by Peter Kirkpatrick (who also plays keyboards), and since this time round most leads have the benefit of being miked, much less ends up overpowered by instrumentals, though some sound mix adjustment is still needed.

Carole Solis is stage manager and Jorge Villanueva assistant stage manager. Gilbert Valenzuela is production coordinator, Zoyla Cruz production assistant, Eric Babb prop master, and Albert Woo light board operator.

In their Opening Night opening remarks, Teatro Nuevos Horizontes artistic director Alvarado and Casa 0101 board president Edward Padilla underlined just how significant a production of the importance, scope and caliber of In The Heights’ is in bringing the magic and power of professional musical theater to Boyle Heights—to which I can only echo Abuela Claudia’s “Praise to this!”

¡Alabanza, In The Heights! ¡Alabanza!

Note: Chala Savino plays Daniela on December 20, 21, and 22.

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

–Steven Stanley
November 22, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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