Candlelight Pavilion tops everything it’s done over the past year—and that includes Evita, The Producers, Spamalot, and last month’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—with a sensational mid-summer staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In The Heights.
As any Broadway buff will tell you, In The Heights is the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008, a celebration of up-up-uptown Manhattan’s Washington Heights and 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 them 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 brought to utterly winning life on the Candlelight Pavilion stage by Rubén J. Carbajal.
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 (Anyssa Navarro), 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 (Orlando Montes) and Camila (Jackie Lorenzo Cox). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Revel Day) 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 (Domonique Paton), the object of Usnavi’s affection, a leggy chica who’s got dreams (and money troubles) of her own. Vanessa works alongside born-again bubble-head Carla (Brittany Thornton) at the beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Briana Bonilla), about to close its doors forever.
There’s also Sonny (Ruben Bravo), Usnavi’s mischievous teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Jonathan Arana), 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.
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 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 Sharkettes harmonized to “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 a certain Donald Trump), and just as homophobia often comes from those who don’t know a single gay or lesbian person, 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 culturally backward 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.
Candlelight could not have made a savvier choice of directors than Benjamin Perez, who’s played Kevin in half-a-dozen productions, including the 2nd National Tour, nor could they have found a more fabulous choreographer than Perez’s fellow Teatro Nuevos Horizontes cast member Marissa Herrera, the dúo dinámico putting all of their In The Heights experience and imagination and know-how to crowd-delighting effect.
Following his June graduation from Cal State Fullerton’s prestigious Musical Theater BFA program, Carbajal graduates a second time—from the role of Sonny (which he played at the Chance Theater just last summer) to Usnavi, investing the In The Heights linchpin with a maturity and depth beyond the young performer’s years in addition to acing Usnavi’s requisite energía, ritmo, y pasión.
The Rosario household is brought to vibrant, authentic life by a powerhouse Montes as Kevin, a volcanic Cox as Camila, and a vivacious, wining Navarro as Nina. Each has his or her own show-stopper (Montes’s “Inútil,” Cox’s “Enough,” and Navarro’s “Breathe”) and stop the show each one does. As for fish-out-of-water Benny, Day has just the right looks and vocals for the role, and both get shown off in “Sunrise,” the spicy Benny/Nina duet.
Equity Guest Artist Paton is as stunning (and stunningly voiced) a Vanessa as any Usnavi could wish for, nineteen-year-old Bonilla owns the sassy Daniela like a pro twice her age opposite a delightful Thornton as Carla, and Washington Heights’ storefronts owe much of their color (and In The Heights much of its dance excitement) to Marcos’s salsa-riffic Grafitti Pete.
Supporting all of the above are Bravo’s spicy, spunky Sonny, Celaya’s gorgeously sung, deeply felt Abuela Claudia, and Arana’s rafters-reaching Piragua Guy.
As for the show’s singing-dancing ensemble, In The Heights’ stellar Marcos Alexander, Fabio Antonio, Leonel Ayala, Rachel Burkert, Jessica Cornejo, Ariella Fiore, Michael Gonzalez, Marie Gutierrez, Jayson Puls, April Sheets, and Chad Takeda nail choreographer Herrera’s breakdance, salsa, and meringue moves while revealing vocals honed to perfection by musical director Cassie Nickols.
Like most Candlelight productions, In The Heights has its cast performing to prerecorded tracks, but this time round the canned mix gets sweetened by a pair of live percussionists, Alan and SeungAh Waddington. (Not until the show was over did I realize I hadn’t been listening to a full live band.)
In The Heights features one of the best sets I’ve seen at Candlelight, based on Anna Louizos’s original Broadway design, and Steve Giltner’s spectacular lighting design (provided by StreetLite LLC) makes it look even better. Costumes coordinated by Karen Fix Curry and Mary Warde’s wigs aid greatly making us believe we’re smack dab in the middle of Washington Heights. Sound design is topnotch as well.
Laurie Muniz-Jimez is associate choreographer. Jonathan Daroca is lighting design assistant.
Daniel Moorefield is stage manager and Montes technical director. Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval serve up Candlelight’s invariably yummy cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, and especially to artistic director John LaLonde.
Whether you’ve seen In The Heights numerous times already or are only just now discovering this most dazzling of recent Broadway gems, Candlelight Pavilion offers up a “Carnaval Del Barrio” well worth a drive to Claremont.
It gets a great big ¡Alabanza! from this reviewer, Abuela Claudia’s way of saying WOW!
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.
August 16, 2105
Photos: Demetrios Katsantonis