Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In The Heights now arrives in Anaheim Heights (sorry, make that Anaheim Hills) in as fine an intimate staging as any you could hope to see of the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008, Chance Theater mainstays Oanh Nguyen and Kelly Todd directing and choreographing with their accustomed brilliance, aided and abetted by a sensational young cast.
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 on the Chance Theater stage by a phenomenal Joshua Lopez. This young, oddly 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 (Julia Cassandra 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 (Tony Sanchez) and Camila (Rachel Oliveros Catalano). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Charles McCoy) 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 (Chelsea Baldree), 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 (Angeline Mirenda) at Daniela’s salon, a beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Sonja Taylor) and about to close its doors forever.
There’s also Sonny (Rubén J. Carbajal), Usnavi’s mischievous teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Julio Arroyo), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Izzy Perez), whose street art will prove of supreme importance in Usnavi’s life.
Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Candida Orosco), 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 Anita and the Shark girls sang “America” in 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 Claudia, 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.
Inspired by his family’s own immigrant experience, Chance Theater Artistic Director Nguyen gives this intimate In The Heights staging a particularly strong feeling of family and community, in addition to insuring some particularly strong performances, most notably from Lopez, whose Usnavi is the finest of the five I’ve seen.
Not only does Lopez give the part Usnavi’s requisite warmth, wisdom, and charm (and rap with the best), he digs especially deep into the Dominican-American shopkeeper’s emotional connection with his Washington Heights neighbors and with his beloved Abuela Claudia in particular. Another actor might have you thinking that Usnavi is a featured role, since he’s offstage rather more often that a lead might usually expect to be. With Lopez playing the part, Usnavi’s last-and-solo bow at curtain calls seems absolutely justified.
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.
As the Rosarios, Sanchez and Catalano deliver production-anchoring performances, each one stopping the show with a powerhouse solo, his “Inútil” and her “Enough,” and Smith gives Nina an incandescent loveliness and as gorgeous a voice as you could possibly wish for. McCoy’s Benny has charm, grit, and great rapport with Smith’s Nina, Carbajal couldn’t be more impishly appealing as Sonny, and Perez makes for one damn sexy Graffiti Pete, in addition to Grade-A B-Boy moves. Orosco gives Abuela Claudia so much spirit and heart and decades of life experience that you forget she’s half the character’s age. Baldree is a vivacious, big-voiced Vanessa, Taylor a feisty if low-key Daniela, Mirenda a deliciously ditzy Carla, and Arroyo an engaging, golden-throated Piragua Guy.
One of the great pleasures of the Chance’s In The Heights is seeing how choreographer Todd has reconceived the musical’s dance sequences “from the ground up,” not only capturing the salsa and sabor of Usnavi’s vecindad in dance moves that combine Latin and Street but making sure that big ensemble numbers like the show-opening “In The Heights,” “96,000,” “The Club/Fireworks,” and “Carnaval Del Barrio” tell individual stories and advance the plot as well.
Bringing Todd’s original choreography to life is a couldn’t-be-better ensemble of young SoCal triple-threats: Jonna K. Ahn, Fabio Antonio, Wesley Barnes, Stephanie Inglese, Bryan A. Martinez, Celina Nguyen, Monika Peña, Sarah Pierce, and Nohely Quiroz, whose individualized performances give us a very real sense of the familia surrounding our story-telling hero.
Vocally strong under Robyn Wallace’s topnotch musical direction, the cast is backed up instrumentally by a backstage band that could hardly sound better or richer or more salsational (Wallace joined by Nolan Delmer, Adolfo Kushelevich, Tim Mathiesen, Carlos Melgar, Saul Reynoso, Jeffrey Segal, and Jorge Zuniga), sound designer Ryan Brodkin insuring an expert mix of amped voices and instrumentals. (This is one In The Heights where you can understand every word of Usnavi’s raps.)
Scenic designer Bradley Kaye’s recreation of Washington Heights en miniatura, Martha Carter’s vibrant lighting design, and Christina Marie Perez’s colorful costumes (with the exception of Vanessa’s first, unflattering outfit) are all winners as well.
Additional creative credits go to assistant director Clint Foley, assistant choreographer Christopher M. Albrecht, and assistant sound designer Josh Cardenas. Dialect coach Cynthia DeCure succeeds with most cast members, though not all are able to convince us they are native Spanish speakers.
Courtny Greenough is stage manager and Kristen Cruz and Nicole Salimbeni are assistant stage managers. Sophie Cripe is dramaturg. Sophie and Larry Cripe are executive producers.
Past Chance musicals West Side Story, Hair, Jerry Springer: The Opera, Lysistrata Jones, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Triassic Parq have set the bar high for In The Heights, a challenge which Nguyen, Todd, and company have met—and then some—with this latest musical triumph for the OC’s finest intimate theater bar none.
(Understudy Andrew Puente performs the role of Usavi at Sunday matinees on July 20 and 27 and August 3.)
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
July 11, 2014
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio