“You must take the A Train–even farther than Harlem, to northern Manhattan and maintain; Get off at 181st, and take the escalator (I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later!)” sings “Usnavi De La Vega” our amiable ‘everyman’ narrator and guide, as he describes his world at the start of “In The Heights”–the Tony Award Winner for “Best Musical” now playing at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California. Produced in association with Mc Coy-Rigby Entertainment, the show features music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (based on an original conception also by Miranda,) while the book is by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Direction for this new production is by Benjamin Perez (who also Co-Stars) with Co-Direction and Choreography by Marissa Herrera and Musical Direction by Brent Crayon.
“Are you ready to be blown away?” asked Producer Tom Mc Coy to all of the first-nighters in attendance, and he couldn’t have described their impending experience better. “In The Heights” is the final show of the company’s triumphant 2021-22 ‘return’ season—an accomplishment that just a year ago none of them were absolutely certain they’d even have! Happily, it could just as truthfully be asserted, they’ve saved the best for last! Overflowing with contemporary music and contemporary dance-club cavorting, all performed by an enthusiastic company of triple-threat performing artists, “La Mirada’s” “In The Heights” isn’t simply a ‘show’ or a ‘musical’, it’s a fiesta celebration! A true ensemble piece if ever there was one, the true brilliance of Hudes’ book lies in the way it balances several subplots which ultimately blend to become the master-story without diminishing any of them. Add to it, how so few musicals in recent times are so…well, musical—or so well written! Set in the torrid summer of 2008, in the Washington Heights section of “Nueva York”, at the outset, “Usnavi” sets the time and situation, by revealing, “I’m getting tested, times are tough on this bodega…our neighbors started packin’ up and pickin’ up, and ever since the rents went up. It’s gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough…” Exploring what happens when the lights go out one hot 4th of July weekend in their urban neighborhood, “In The Heights” serves as a potent reminder of the importance of chasing one’s dreams, finding where you belong, and always having a ‘home’ to come back to. The people who enliven it may be tough, passionate or quirky in their distinct and individual ways but as a whole, they sincerely care about one another and help each other when needed. Such is the essence of a family–and that’s one of the reasons “In The Heights’ is so darn irresistible; but this is also a neighborhood in flux, and as the weekend wears on, they come to realize this is possibly their last night as a community before progress and the inevitable changes it brings about will take each to different ‘places’. Despite any encroaching uncertainties though, that feeling of belonging so deeply instilled in them, is something that none will ever leave behind!
As Director, Perez brings a complete litany of qualifications for this crucial behind-the-scenes role. On top of playing in the show’s National tour, he has also directed several local productions, which has obviously afforded him with special insight into the material that serves this version exceptionally well. He KNOWS this material substantially and makes all the right moves in presenting it. At first glance, “In The Heights” could be too-easily viewed as another ‘slice-of-life’ drama (with comedic overtones.) Perez however, expertly finds the extraordinary in the everyday, the miracles in the mundane, thus giving this production free-reign to be astonishing (and that it positively is!) Logistically, quite a lot unfolds in a relatively brief amount of time; in keeping the general tempo. of the show fairly swift, he gives the slower, softer moments an enhanced potency making them resoundingly memorable. In the same way, the rollicking Choreography by Marissa Herrera and Associate Choreographer, Laurie Marie Muniz, works a few wonders in itself, infusing vivacious movement into songs virtually at every turn. Indeed, there is a surprisingly lot of dance in this, but it always springs from an organic and reasonable place, starting with the exuberant full-company opening of the titular number, “In The Heights”. This doesn’t just explain the setting and introduce most of the key players, it’s also set to the cadence of some groovin’ salsa-inspired ‘bailando en la calle’ (dancing in the streets.) Shortly after, “Abuela Claudia’s” ‘flash back’ in the midst of her introspective hymn, “Paciencia Y Fe” has several smooth-as-silk “Tango” exchanges, while the act break, referred to plainly as “The Club”, occurring as “Usnavi” and the girl of his dreams, “Vanessa” go out on their first official ‘date’, is teeming with eye-popping motion–including some stylish variations on the samba and merengue–and even some stunning ‘break-dancing’ measures undertaken by the ensemble. Post Intermission, “Carnival Del Barrio” is likewise an all-out bright and buoyant interlude, featuring more stunning ‘break dancing’–also from said ensemble.
Populated by a group of rich and real protagonists who live by, and personify, the very human motto: “Paciencia Y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”,) leading the cast is Ruben J. Carbajal as “Usnavi De La Vega”. “I’ve worked with what they gave me,” “Usnavi” says of his unusual moniker when we learn he was named after one of the very first ‘American’ words his parents saw upon their arrival in New York Harbor: a ship bearing the words: “U.S. Navy”. From his initial entrance early on, Carbajal keeps things humming—quite often through brisk narration infused into a fast-paced ‘rap’ number. Consider too, it takes a strong performer to be both at the core of all the happenings, while at the same time conducting and shepherding focus onto the story’s other “Dramatis Personae” when so required, but Carbajal is handily more than up to the task. Joining him, as “Vanessa”, the girl “Usnavi” secretly pines for, Claudia Mulet too proves to be a theatrical force of nature. Ms. Mulet flourishes with her opening soliloquy, “It Won’t Be Long Now” as she too, ponders leaving the neighborhood: “The elevated train by my window doesn’t faze me anymore; the rattling screams don’t disrupt my dreams–It’s a lullaby, in its way…” she croons; “And one day, I’m hoppin’ that elevated train and I’m riding away!” Not only does the number give her the chance to show off how admirable a voice she has, it also establishes her as a genial persona besides. (The number also features several vibrant phrases of group choreography that creates some nice momentum for the song.) Subsequently, her sweltering dance solo during “The Club”, has ‘Vanessa’ basking in the limelight, categorically proving she’s as incredible a dancer as she is a singer. Together with Shadia Fairuz and Lindsey Dantes (as beauticians “Daniela” and “Carla” respectively,) their “No Me Diga” is a lively tune which gives rise to some pleasant harmony, and an abundance of laughs. (Count this one a genuine show highlight!)
Daisy Marie Lopez comparably excels (and impresses) as “Nina Rosario” –the ‘prodigal daughter’ who returns from college on this fateful weekend. Ms. Lopez is herself in fine possession of a masterful and expressive voice, in conjunction with a bright personality which serves her character well. Her initiative solo, “Breathe” as “Nina” returns home (after secretly dropping out of Stanford University) is A-Plus! Then, her second act soliloquy “Everything I Know” is about as touching as modern musical theater gets. Meanwhile, as “Nina’s” soon-to-be boyfriend, “Benny”, is Hosea Mundi, who similarly contributes an easy-going and charismatic presence. More or less a newcomer to the neighborhood and its inhabitants (who seem to have known one another for forever,) it is through “Benny’s” eyes that much of the show’s goings-on and revelations are digested, clarified and understood. Mundi is also a bona-fide vocal powerhouse in his own right, and his duets opposite Ms. Lopez (they have several) are amongst the best moments in the entire show–including both of their parts in “Sunrise” (which opens Act Two) and “When The Sun Goes Down”. Prior to either of these, Mundi’s half-sung, half rapped intro. to “Benny’s Dispatch” is every bit as fantastic as it is frenetic! Also nothing short of remarkable is Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield as “Abuela Claudia”. “Abuela” (Grandmother) in the hearts of all the younger people around her, she is the definite soul of the neighborhood. When the returning “Nina” thanks her for sending all her recipes to the girl while she was away at school, “Abuela” replies, “I had to make sure you remembered the flavor of home.” Ms. Schofield has one of those rare vocal talents that gives one the strong sense that she could handle ANY kind of music. Here, her Act One standout “Paciencia Y Fe” has a deeper resonance than merely being a lovely philosophy (albeit one we could all do with particularly in these often ‘challenging’ times,) it speaks to this woman’s gentle spirit and quiet strength, as she hearkens back to 1943, when “Claudia” first came to the ‘Big Apple” from Cuba.
Serving double-duty as both Director and Co-Star, Benjamin Perez also succeeds greatly as “Kevin Rosario”, “Nina’s” father and the proprietor of “Rosario’s Car Service”. “Hey, a man’s gotta dream big,” he asserts while buying some lottery tickets from “Usnavi’s” next-door market. “Kevin’s” first act descant, “Inútil (Useless)” is one of the first act’s best delivered—introspective, powerful, and supremely heartfelt, through it the elder “Rosario” describes his humble beginnings in Puerto Rico, and (apart from his resolute decision to immigrate north to NYC,) his determination to also become a success once he did! “I’m going farther,”: he recalls telling his father; “I’m getting on a plane and I’m gonna change the world someday!” Yet now, beleaguered by the ever-changing tides of the world and its events, he perplexes as to how he can help his beloved daughter equally succeed as well. As his wife, “Camila Rosario”, Crissy Guerrero also furnishes a much-needed presence on stage (for unfathomable reasons, “Camila” was cut from the 2021 Big-screen adaptation.) Fact is, this show practically requires “Camila” to work as well as it does; she represents the heart and strength of a family, and along with all her other laudable talents Guerrero brings to this portrayal, she magnificently allows this woman’s innate, everyday “heroism” to shine through too. She validates this irrepressibility with “Enough” in which she chides her daughter, “When you have a problem you come home! You don’t go off and make matters worse on your own.” Commendable support is also supplied by Kevin Solis as “The Piragua Man”–whose lighthearted number (fittingly titled “Piragua”) is a bouncy, mood elevating intermezzo; in addition, Kevin Trinio Perdido as “Graffiti Pete” is a dexterous dancer who, in lieu of a formal overture, engages in a brief, but nimble series of maneuvers to the accompaniment of “Pete’s” aerosol spray-cans. Other featured dancers who demonstrate some dynamic footwork include Dance Captains Rennie Bourgeois, and Rachel Josefina, Bianca Brandon, Hailey Izurieta, Steven-Adam Agdeppa and yes, ALL the others! Combined, they ensure that this production’s spectacular terpsichorean sequences rank amongst the most exemplary elements that it can so rightly boast.
In the center of the back scrim of the Scenic Design by “Music And Theatre Co.”, is the omni-present looming archway of the iconic “George Washington Bridge”, flanked stage left by “Rosario’s Cab And Limousine Service”, while at the right, sits “Usnavi’s” humble Bodega, next to which is “Daniela’s Unisex Hair Salon”. A functional and well-designed set, it effectively gives the impression of a long occupied metropolitan street, while still maintaining a pleasant hominess to it. By the same token, Donny Jackson’s Lighting Designs are themselves especially impressive and frequently play an integral part in the goings-on, such as when the action progresses into the “Blackout” (amid all the ensuing fireworks,) the stage is bathed in blood-red. These are expertly augmented by Jonathan Infante’s inspired projection effects, such as exploding skyrockets projected across the rear scrim and vast urban “building” sets, or the ethereal summertime starry night in the course of “Abuela Claudia’s” remembrance of her first summer evenings in the city.
“¡No Me Diga! Tell me something I don’t know?” Try this: In this show there’s a lot to love! After previewing Friday, June 3rd and Saturday afternoon, June 4th, “In The Heights” officially opened on Saturday evening, June 4th, 2022, were it is slated to play through Sunday, June 26th, 2022, at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”, located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd., in La Mirada CA. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 PM Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM & 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 1:30 PM & 6:30 PM; there will be an Open Captioned Performance on Saturday, June 18th at 2:00 PM, while post-curtain “Talk Backs’ with the cast and the creative teams will be held on Thursday evening, June 9th and Thursday evening, June 23rd. Tickets may be obtained on-line by visiting: www.lamiradatheatre.com or via phone, by calling: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 (Special Student Discounts and Group Rates are available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By TAKE Creative Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Benjamin Perez, Marissa Herrera, Laurie Marie Muniz, Brent Crayon, & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2022 Production Of “In The Heights” For Making This Story Possible.