“Everybody has a job–everybody has a dream,” we’re told in the opening of “In The Heights”–the 2008 Tony Award Winner for “Best Musical” from creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. It all takes place on a street where the action alternates between three establishments: a car service company, a neighborhood bodega and a beauty parlor. Lives unfold over the course of a busy and hot Fourth of July weekend in the barrio. A girl will return from college, an old woman will win the lottery, and a timid store proprietor will finally ask out the girl of his dreams. There will also be a huge power outage; new relationships will begin, and other relationships will be redefined. It’s all a part of life in New York City’s glorious district known as “Washington Heights”.
The title number introduces Usnavi–a likable Latino everyman through whose eyes this vibrant world is seen. His unique name, we learn, was inspired by one of the first sights his parents saw when they arrived in New York Harbor: a ship bearing the moniker “U.S. Navy”! We also discover that upon his parent’s death, he was taken in by “Abuela Claudia”–their tight-knit community’s honorary matriarch, and that the tiny store he runs with his teenage cousin Sonny, is everyone’s source for cups of coffee, newspapers, snacks and sodas. Likewise during the song, we meet the other major characters as they go about their business.
“My syntax is highly complicated, because I emigrated,” raps Usnavi early on, explaining how they moved to the ‘Isle of Manhattan’ from the Dominican Republic. Performed by Lin-Manuel himself, the first thing that strikes one upon actually talking with the man behind this hit musical is how he seems so much like the character he created….friendly, unassuming, just one of the guys. It comes as no surprise then, to learn that much of the plot is inspired by Miranda’s actual experiences: His folks owned a small neighborhood bodega and he was taken care of by a surrogate grandmother not unlike the woman depicted in the story. “I tried to create the kind of show I’d want to be in,” he confides. (Miranda was featured in the recent run in Hollywood. For its O.C. run, however, his role will be taken over by Joseph Morales.)
Immediately after, Nina Rosario returns from Stanford University where she’s been attending on a partial scholarship. Not only is she the first in her family to go off to college, she’s the first on her entire block! Brilliant as the girl is though, she’s returning with a secret–she lost her academic scholarship and had to drop out. Experiencing Arielle Jacobs as Nina, one can’t help feeling they may be catching a glimpse of the next Patti Lupone. Few artists in recent memory can actually ‘act’ the feelings of a song so magnificently and with such power.
Nina’s not the only one with a surprise though. Abuela Claudia, discovers that her weekly investment in a lottery ticket has at last paid off! She has hit the jackpot to the sum of $96,000.00! Exuding quiet strength, Elise Santora offers an especially touching moment as Claudia, under the stars and silhouetted by the historic “George Washington Bridge”, recalls her girlhood journey from Cuba to ‘Nueva York’ back in the early 1940’s in “Pacentia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”.
Meanwhile, the gals at the beauty parlor–the sassy Vanessa, wide-eyed innocent, Carla, and Daniela, the self-assured owner of the place, are readying to move their business to a new address in Brooklyn Heights. “That’s right,” Daniela announces,” we’re leaving the ’barrio’ to head on up to ’the hood’!” As the salon-owner, Isabel Santiago has a voice and charisma reminiscent of a young Pat Benatar. Lexi Lawson is equally electrifying as Vanessa, while Genny Lis Padilla captures the audience’s heartstrings and funny-bones as the ‘cute-as-a-button’ Carla.
Eventually, Nina is confronted by her parents, Kevin and Camila, who discover why she dropped out: “I was so busy working two jobs to pay for the books I then didn’t have enough time to read!” She confesses. Kevin, devastated that he couldn’t provide tuition without the scholarship, ultimately announces at a dinner party intended to welcome his daughter home, that he’s sold the family’s business in order to assure her education continues. “What did we do to make you think we wouldn’t do anything and everything for you?” Nina’s parents assure her. “When you have a problem, you come home. You don’t run off and hide from your family all alone!”
Not coincidentally, this strong sense of ‘familia’ runs through the entire production. “In the Heights” is a true ensemble piece in the most literal sense. Audiences of this touring production are given the gift of a tremendously talented cast. In fact, the supporting roles provide the plot with much of its impact. For example, the ‘Piragua Man‘, played here by David Baida, at first seems like he’s simply popping in and out of the background; that is, until he belts out his hymn to this flavorful, frozen treat from Puerto Rico! The tune is a danceable little hummer that will energize your brain for days after! So too, Jose-Luis in the more modest-but-pivotal role of Graffiti Pete possesses a dynamic sex appeal which illuminates the stage.
Yet what makes this such a complete breakthrough is the way Miranda combines disparate, even completely opposite elements, like salsa dancing with classical ballet, or Latin rhythms with traditional Jazz and urban Rap, making it all work fantastically! Furthermore, the three subplots mesh excellently thanks to the polished book by writer Quiara Alegria Hudes. While some jokes or throw away lines that might go over bigger in NYC may only rate a slight, (if perhaps confused) chuckle elsewhere, it’s a grand slice of life regardless of where you’re from. Don’t expect any stand-out standards like ‘Some Enchanted Evening.” Taken as a whole, the ENTIRE musical makes for an evening filled with enchantment!
After packing the house at Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater, the show is moving southward below the “Orange Curtain” from August 3-15 to the Orange County Center For The Performing Arts in Costa Mesa, CA. If you haven’t seen this spicy gem of a ’presentacion’ yet, don’t walk–RUN–to get tickets! They can be ordered by calling The Center Box Office at (714)556-2787 or by logging onto: http://www.OCPAC.org; for more information regarding future tour dates and cities, checkout: http://www.intheheightsthemusical.com .
(Photo Credits: Joan Marcus & Lance Perkins; Special Thanks to Heather Cho, Ted Ragsdale, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the entire cast of “In The Heights” for making this story possible.)