Musical Theatre West gives In The Heights, the thrilling, entertaining, emotionally powerful Tony-winning Best Musical of 2008, not only its first major L.A. County staging since its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda played the Pantages, its MTW debut proves the most brilliant of the eight productions I’ve now seen since that 2010 First National Tour.

With Tony-winning music and lyrics by Hamilton’s 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 (Perry Young), 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 (Alyssa Gomez), 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 (Mario Rocha) and Camila (Elvira Barjua). Kevin runs the financially struggling Rosario’s Car Service, where African-American Benny (Carleton Bluford) 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 (Teresa Castillo), 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 (Merissa Haddad) at the beauty shop run by big-haired Daniela (Briana Bonilla), about to close its doors forever.

There’s also Sonny (Andrew Joseph Perez), Usnavi’s mischievous teenage cousin; Piragua Guy (E.J. Cardona), who supplies the neighborhood with Puerto Rican-style snow cones; and Graffiti Pete (Luis Martinez), whose street art will prove of supreme importancia in Usnavi’s life.

Finally, there’s Abuela Claudia (Candida Celaya), 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 increasingly draconian anti-immigration policies (thanks to a certain someone in the Oval Office), 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 y comunidad—the village that it took to raise Usnavi and Sonny and Nina from childhood to adulthood, and with Benjamin Perez directing with supreme attention to detail a show that he knows like the back of his hand, Hector Guerrero choreographing with equal parts originality and panache, and a cast pretty darned near definitive, this In The Heights soars to Broadway-level heights.

A sensational Young captivates, charms, and salsaraps like he’s Miranda’s younger bro (which looks-wise he could well be), capturing every iota of Usnavi’s energía, ritmo, y passion, and he is supported by a cast of featured players who match the UCI grad’s talent and charisma every step of the way.

Rocha’s flawed-but-loving Kevin, Barjau’s dormant volcano of a Camila, and Gomez’s plucky, passionate Nina are not only absolutely terrific, they look as if they could share the same genes, and Bluford’s Benny is the handsome mensch any dad in his right mind would welcome with open arms into the Rosario clan.

The luscious Castillo makes it obvious from first entrance why the entire neighborhood is loco for Vanessa, and Bonilla’s fabulously larger-than-life Daniela and Haddad’s deliciously bubble-headed Carla are a match made in Washington Heights heaven.

The warm and winning Celaya is the grandmother any Usnavi would be proud to call Abuela, Perez’s Sonny sparkles with irresistible sass, Martinez dances up a sassy storm as Graffiti Pete, and E.J. Cardona scores laughs that other Piragua Guys can only dream of.

As for In The Heights’ gifted young ensemble, not only do Joseph Abrego, Ariana Alvarez, Leonel Ayala, Carly Cannata, Kaeli Carr, Danil Chernyy, Juan Guillen, Luzma Ortiz, Joshua Rivera, Rodrigo Varandas, Candace Washington, Ali Whitney, dance captain Penny Wildman, and Armando Yearwood sing and dance up a storm, they create real characters whose lives form a backdrop to the stories Usnavi and his friends and family have to tell. (Special dance kudos to Rivera’s sensuous, seductive moves in “The Club.”)

With sets and costumes appearing to be the (uncredited) original Broadway designs, Jean-Yves Tessier lighting them to gorgeous perfection, and Audio Production Geeks LLC insuring we can hear every syllable of Miranda’s salsa-rhyming lyrics, this In The Heights is Grade-A every step of the way, particularly with musical director Dennis Castellano conducting the all-pro MTW orchestra.

Additional kudos are due Anthony Gagliardi (wig design), Brandy Jacobs (costume coordinator), and Marcie Baker (properties), with sets provided by The Music & Theatre Company and props by Moonlight Stage Productions.

Daniel Schultz is stage manager, Mary Ritenhour is assistant stage manager, and Kevin Clowes is technical director.

Broadway-caliber all the way, Musical Theatre West’s In The Heights hits the musical theater jackpot big time. If you see only one—or one more—In The Heights in your life, let this be the one.

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Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 21, 2017
Photos: Caught In The Moment Photography


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