In The Heights, the thrilling, entertaining, emotionally powerful Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008, has arrived at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center in a production whose triple-threat performances rival the best of the multiple professional ITH stagings I’ve seen over the past six years.
With Tony-winning music and lyrics by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tony-nominated book by Quiara Alegría 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.
Our guide to the vecindad is Dominican-born Usnavi (Rehyan Rivera), the Washington Heights bodega owner whose 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 (Tatiana Cantu), the first in the neighborhood to go to college (Stanford University no less), who’s returned home with un secreto she’s terrified to reveal to her proud-as-peacocks parents Kevin (Juan Carlos Cantu) and Camila (Ariella Fiore). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Jeremy Whatley) 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 (Sandra Diana Cantu), the object of Usnavi’s affection, a curvy chica with dreams (and money troubles) of her own who works alongside born-again bubble-head Carla (Megan Fleming) at the beauty shop run by sassy Daniela (Sara Gonzales), about to close its doors forever.
There’s also Sonny (Robert Love), Usnavi’s mischievous teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (Vincent Perez), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Santos Hemenway), whose street art will prove of supreme importancia in Usnavi’s life.
Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Carla Lombardo Bambo), the neighborhood matriarch who has been Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother since the death of his parents years ago.
These characters reveal their hopes and dreams in musical soliloquies that along with Usnavi’s “salsarap” songs, some infectious Caribbean rhythms, and the kind of “conversation songs” usually found in sung-through musicals, give the Miranda’s score a sabor latino not heard on Broadway since West Side Story some fifty years before.
Also, in this age of draconian anti-immigration laws (and a certain Donald Trump), In The Heights shows us how very alike we all are, even as it refuses to shy away from prejudice within the Latino community, as when Kevin learns that his daughter is falling for his African-American chief dispatcher.
Ultimately, though, In The Heights is about familia and comunidad—the village that it took to raise Usnavi and Sonny and Nina from childhood to adulthood, and under Fred Helsel’s astute direction, and with Becky Castell’s high-energy original choreography giving the villagers ample reason to dance, a cast of gifted performers bring these characters and those around them to vivid life.
A revelatory Rivera graduates from Sonny 2013 to Usnavi 2016 and he is everything Usnavi should be—warm, grounded, eternally hopeful, shy, romantic, caring, and wise beyond his years—and he salsa-raps with the best of them.
A trio of Cantus are absolutamente esplendidos, father Juan Carlos proud, intolerant, but ultimately loving opposite real-life younger daughter Tatiana’s vocally blessed Nina, whose “Breathe” could coax tears from a stone, with older daughter Sandra Diana heating up the stage with her sizzling Vanessa.
Gonzales vanishes into ball-of-fire Daniela with pipes to reach the roof opposite Fleming’s quirky delight of a Carla. Fiore is a powerhouse Camila, Bambo a fabulously feisty Abuela Claudia, and Whatley a velvet-voiced Benny. Hemenway once again aces Graffiti Pete with his sassy dance expertise, and Perez gives Piragua Man an exquisite tenor as he sells his wares.
As for Love, has there ever been a cuter, spunkier, sexier Sonny? Pienso que no.
Supporting all of the above is a Grade-A ensemble (Brigetta Barrett, dance captain Autumn Ericson, Edward Frame, Eduardo Giancarlo, Augusto Guardado, Lillian Manansala, Amanda Meade-Tatum, Johnny Oritz, Alexander Reaves, Brittany Gael Vaughn, and Camila Zacarias) whose harmonies (under Paul Duffy’s expert vocal direction) match their footwork, choreographer Castells making even “movers” come across the next best thing to experienced dancers.
Musical director Maisie Wilson conducts and plays keyboards in one of the best live bands I’ve heard at SVCAC, Chris Grote’s sound design insuring that we hear virtually every syllable of Miranda’s verbally dense lyrics.
Lori Lee Gordon’s colorful, eclectic costumes give each Heights resident individualized life, some of them topped by Gary Poirot’s character-apt wigs, lit effectively if not spectacularly by Julien Reux.
Seth Kamenow’s scenic design does the job, but seems incomplete without the musical’s Heights-defining Washington Bridge panorama. Also, the Rosario sign blocks Nina and Benny’s “Sunrise” from a significant chunk of the audience, and an obivous stick-on robs an Act Two surprise of the emotional impact it should have.
In The Heights is produced by David Ralphe and Helsel. Kamenow is stage manager.
It seems fitting that one of this century’s finest musicals should make for one of the finest productions I’ve seen at SVCAC. For the next five weeks, Washington Heights will be only a hop, skip, and a jump away from Downtown L.A.
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
April 16, 2106
Photos: Jon Neftali Photography