We’ve all heard about Hamilton, the Tony winning sensation that has audiences flocking to see it around the country. You may also be familiar with the Disney film Moana. Writer/composer Lin-Mauel Miranda was behind both of these. However, before there was Hamilton or Moana, there was In the Heights. Miranda is a Hispanic performer who saw there were very few roles for minorities on Broadway. His works have all tried to break the mold and create dynamic roles for these underrepresented groups. The early drafts of In the Heights began in Miranda’s sophomore year at Weleyan University in 1999. It was first performed on the Wesleyan student theater company’s Second Stage in 2000. It took a number of years, but it hit Broadway by storm on March 9th 2008 and went on to 13 Tony nominations with 4 wins including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Clearly Miranda has an ability to create relatable and dynamic story telling with a variety of musical types. You can certainly see Hamilton’s roots in the Usnavi De La Vega’s (Thomas Delgado) character. And Delgado embodies the challenging character perfectly. His high energy sets the stage for the rest of the cast and his performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Usnavi lives “in the heights”, short for Washington Heights on Manhattan, and owns a small bodega or mini-mart. The heights are run down and has a number of eccentric characters like his cousin Sonny (Josh Arellano) who helps him in the market or Daniela (Jennifer Coville) who runs a hair salon with Carla (Ella Graham) and Vanessa (Celia Thompson), Graffiti Pete (Jeremiah Birts), Abuela (Shawna Pena-Downing) and the Piragua Vendor (Elaine Watson).
Things are tough in the heights. Daniela is closing her salon and things are changing. Usnavi has a long-time crush on Vanessa, but she is obsessed with getting out of the heights and seems out of his league. The one person who has made it out is Nina (Guadalupe Valdes) by getting a scholarship to Stanford. Valdes has an absolutely beautiful voice and is a joy to listen to. She is returning from Stanford with bad news. She has lost her scholarship because while the tuition was paid for, the books were not. And her having to work two jobs just to get by hurt her grades. Her parents, Kevin (Ricardo Renteria) and Camilia (Pancha Brown) Rosario have no idea and as everyone welcomes Nina back, she can’t bring herself to tell them the truth. She runs into Benny (Joseph Johnson) who is Usnavi’s best friend and a dispatcher at the Rosario’s car company and we can see how Benny has been pining away for Nina. Johnson started out the evening slow, but as the night grew his performance took shape and by the end he finished strong, holding his own with Nina.
When Nina finally tells everyone, her parents, especially her father, are devastated. Kevin mourns the fact that he can’t take care of his family and this sets off a chain reaction of events for the Rosario family. It’s also clear that her father wants her to have nothing to do with Benny.
When Usnavi finds out that one of his poor patrons bought a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 the cast sings about what they would do with the money. While it may not be retire forever money, it would most certainly be life changing. And that’s what this musical is about. It allows the audience to connect to these characters. It fosters understanding and acceptance that even though life puts you in harder circumstances, people are still human. They love, they dream and they hurt. And in today’s world, that is something we are sorely missing. We no longer see others in different circumstances as human beings but make sweeping judgements about them based on random characteristics. By the end of the show we see them all as people, not just poor or minorities. And isn’t that how we should be every day?
You can probably tell by this point that this cast requires a lot of minorities. And that can be a huge problem in Johnson county, especially in community theater. Director Bill Christie has found a solid blend of appropriate ethnicities to stay true to Miranda’s intent. Coville’s comedic character Daniela shines both in acting and singing and is complemented by Graham’s marvelous over religious employee. The Piragua Vendor wanders in and out but makes an impression with her strong vocal talents. Arellano stands out as Sonny. He is fun to watch and is always in his character. There is a lot of talent on this stage. I would have liked to see more depth from some of the players. Christie did well but could have spent more time on character development for some. Perhaps it will strengthen during the run as they gain momentum.
Music director James Levy’s vocal direction paid off. There are many ensemble songs and they all sounded strong. There were a handful of times when, during larger numbers, the attention is supposed to shift from actor to actor on the stage bringing them into focus. While they hit the mark a few times and they always sounded great, we occasionally lost that and as a result the story line got a little muddled. But overall Levy got some strong performances.
While the ensemble is smaller than Miranda used, choreographer LB found some incredible dancers and, combined with Birts’ Graffiti Pete, used them to provide the wow factor you don’t usually see complete with lifts, carries and powerful dance moves. You don’t miss the extra bodies on stage at all. I did find that often the actors were moving away or not looking at the people they were talking to. That was distracting. While sometimes people don’t make eye contact, this was a consistent staging element that took away from the show at times.
The interesting thing about this venue is they reinvent the space for each show so you never know what you’re going to see until you walk into the theater. Scenic Designer Doug Schroeder and Christie created a well design set that captured the essence of the heights. There are many playing areas and they all fit nicely on this stage.
You should head out to see In the Heights and make reservations today as the first weekend was almost completely sold out. Its well worth the trip and as Hamilton won’t be here until next year, you don’t have to wait to get a taste of just why Miranda is so popular. In the Heights plays Thursday (except the 11th), Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and 2:00 on Sundays through October 21st. For ticket information go to KC Stage.