The Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008 with its original Tony-winning choreography and orchestrations, its original Tony-nominated Broadway scenic and costume designs, and a cast of some of Southern California’s finest triple-threats… All of this adds up to the very first Broadway-scale L.A.-adjacent regional production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In The Heights, one of the finest Cabrillo Music Theatre productions ever.
As any Broadway buff will tell you, 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 Tony-winning music and lyrics by Miranda and Tony-nominated 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.
In The Heights’ thrilling ten-minute opening sequence introduces us to Usnavi, a character originated on Broadway by Miranda himself and now played to charismatic, winning effect by musical theater newcomer Lano Medina. 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 (Ayme Olivo), 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 (Celina Clarich Polanco). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Frank Authello Adrus 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 (Rachae Thomas), 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 (Anna Gabrielle Gonzalez) at Daniela’s salon, a beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Chala Savino) and about to close its doors forever.
There’s also Sonny (Robert Ramirez), Usnavi’s impish teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Jonathan Arana), 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 (Tami Dahbura), 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 hailing from 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 draconian anti-immigration laws, 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, director Morgan Marcell insures that her 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, recreated for Cabrillo Music Theatre to absolute perfection by young ITH vet Marcell, sequences which combine breakdance moves with salsa and meringue, all of them executed on the Kavli stage by a supremely talented ensemble.
Besides Medina’s stellar debut as Usnavi, Cabrillo’s In The Heights features one sensational performance after another, from Perez’s proud, intolerant, but ultimately loving Kevin to Polanco’s mix of maternal warmth and fire as Camila to Ramirez’s adorably cocky Sonny. There’s also Dahbura’s powerful turn as Abuela Claudia and the sexy, sassy duo of Savino and Gonzalez as the beauty shop girls. Olivo couldn’t be more captivating as Nina, Thomas brings electricity to Vanessa, and Andrus 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 Arana as the golden voiced Piragua Guy and associate choreographer Lopez as the street smart Graffiti Pete. There’s not a weak link amongst the fourteen, adding up to some of the most memorable Cabrillo Music Theatre lead and featured performances ever.
The ensemble (Marcos Aguirre, Risa Baeza, John Paul Batista, Charlotte Chau-Pech, Ariella Fiore, Javier Garcia, Natalie Iscovich, Andrew Redland, Tiago, Shaun Tuazon, and Elizabeth Maria Walsh) could hardly be better either, bona fide 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 (supervised by Christine Gibson), to Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman’s gorgeous Tony-winning orchestrations, musical director Brian Baker conducting the fourteen-piece Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra. (Cassie Nickols is assistant musical director and Darryl Archibald music supervisor.)
Add to the above Jean-Yves Tessier’s vivid lighting, Jonathan Burke’s topnotch sound design, and Cassie Russek’s fabulous hair and makeup design and you’ve got one sensational-looking/sounding production.
Lewis Wilkenfeld is Cabrillo Music Theatre Artistic Director. Brooke Baldwin is production stage manager and Anthony Sierra assistant stage manager. Additional program credits go to Gary Mintz (technical director), Char Brister (crew captain), prop designer Alex Choate, and many more too numerous to mention.
A word to the wise. As with all Cabrillo Music Theatre productions, In The Heights runs only this (opening) weekend and next, after which, es historia. 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.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
March 28, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger