IN THE HEIGHTS
By Gary Murray
Starring Christina Aranda, Katherine Brady, Kyle Carter, Virginia Cavaliere, Tauren Hagans, Roddy Kennedy, Presilah Nunez, Benjamin Perez, Celina Clarich Polanco Robert Ramirez and Perry Young
Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
New musicals appear just about every year on Broadway. While some are re-makes and re-imagines of TV shows or movies, some are original works. In the Heights is one such original work and it plays at the Winspear Opera House AT&T Performing Arts Center as a part of the Lexus Broadway Series.
The story of In the Heights is about life in the Washington Heights barrio of NYC. The play takes place in the grueling days of summer in the city. Usnavi (Robert Ramirez) runs a bodega and dreams of leaving the neighborhood to open a bar in the Dominican Republic. He works with Sonny, a young activist more interested in justice than commerce. The local old lady of the block Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda) looks out for Usnavi as if she were his own flesh and blood. Usnavi is also in love with Vanessa (Presilah Nunez).
Next to Usnavi’s business is a beauty shop that is soon moving up and out of the neighborhood. The rent has become too high and the girls want to move on to a better part of town. Vanessa works at the salon and dreams of moving out of the area.
On the other side of the stage is a car service. Owners Kevin and Camila (Celina Clarich Polanco) are very excited that their bright daughter Nina (Virginia Cavaliere) is coming back from Stanford. Nina has had a rough go at the university, working two jobs just to afford books and board. Her parents know nothing of this struggle. Benny (Kyle Carter) is an African American who works for Kevin and who dreams of owing his own business. Benny and Nina are close.
Usnavi discovers that his shop has sold a $96,000 lottery ticket. That means that someone in the neighborhood is rich. The play runs on into night, where the kids go a night club and a black out happens. In the chaos, different people show their true motions.
The second act is the resolution of that night and the confrontations of the different plot elements. While the play is new, the story structure is very old school. Anyone who has seen a comedy by Shakespeare knows where every plot thread will end up. There are no surprises in the book of In the Heights.
The stage is one of the most impressive feats to be placed at the Winspear. Looking like barrio streets, the set contains different levels suggesting the piled on aspect of city life. The actors perform on every level of the stage works, both upstage and back. The implication of fireworks is another impressive feat by the technical crew of In the Heights. For a touring show, this is one striking achievement.
The women save this work. While most of the men rap their lyrics, the ladies show that they have the voices to carry the performance. Presilah Nunez as Vanessa is given two different moments to show her vocal talents. In the First Act she sings “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Sonny and Usnavi. In the Second Act, she and Usnavi sing “Champagne.” Both are moments where her voice fills the hall and she takes command of the stage. Presilah Nunez is an actress destined for a huge career on Broadway.
Virginia Cavaliere as Nina also has her moments on the floorboards. In Act One there is “Breathe” but the true show stopping bit happens in Act Two when she delivers “Everything I Know.” The role is the female center of the work and Virginia Cavaliere takes the stage with the determination to make the magic happen.
The biggest praises have to go to Christina Aranda as Abuela Claudia. While her character is the patron of the neighborhood, her voice is pure youthful delightful. The character has two moments in the work to shine and she takes advantage of those moments. The songs “Patience and Faith” and “Hundreds of Stories” are shining diamonds of In the Heights.
Of the males, Robert Ramirez is the standout performance. His Usnavi is the narrator and lynchpin of the work. The young actor is a winning presence on the stage, showing a charm that travels to the back of the hall. While all the rapping becomes a bit monotonous at times, the actor wins with the audience through sheer will of his character.
Another aspect of the play that worked was the ensemble and swings. The background actors snap and pop across the stage with almost ballet grace. They dance to the Latin tinged tunes with smoothness. It is a thankless feat to be on the stage and not featured but these secondary performers show first rate skills.
In the Heights won 4 Tony Awards in 2008. It is a good play but not a great work. It needs more songs and fewer raps. When the Piragua Guy sings his two little numbers, it becomes obvious that the men need songs in the work. One has to wonder how well this play will hold up for future generations. It is a nice night at the theater but not a seminal experience.