Updated: Jun 8
"On These Blocks You Can't Walk Two Steps Without Bumping Into Someone's Big Plan!"
COFFEE, LIGHT AND SWEET, is the fuel that keeps a busy world in motion in the Tony Award winning musical, “In the Heights,” a singing mural of Latin-American life that often has the inspiriting flavor of a morning pick-me-up on a warm summer day.
Light and sweet are actually just the words to describe this amiable show, which boasts an infectious, bouncy Latin-pop score by the eminently likable, gifted young composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a spicy book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and a stage full of dynamic, energetic performers you can’t take your eyes off and don’t want to.
This salute to the bodega-dotted Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights turns the soap opera struggles of Latino tenement dwellers into an occasion for a salsa-swinging block party. Even when trouble hits, it’s a beautiful day in the barrio. The show, directed by Benjamin Perez, brings a multicultural sound and sensibility to what is ultimately a very conventional feel-good musical experience, giving a community its voice through a mélange of hip-hop, Latin pop and old-fashioned Broadway schmaltz.
Cumulatively, the numbers tell a classic American story, fragrant with café con leche and evoking distant Caribbean memories (Miranda has a penchant for sunrises, sunsets, fireworks and other clichés), providing a refreshing urban update.
The storyline of “In the Heights” is a heart-tugging portrait of family ties focusing on the immigrant experience – in this case, the Dominican-Puerto Rican-Cuban assimilation in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan – a place where the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind.
In the terrific title number that opens the show, you’ll get your ears opened quickly from the pure adrenaline blast of lively Latin beats and hip-hop energy as the atmosphere crackles with electricity and it becomes clear that the audience isn’t here just to watch the ride—they want to be on the ride. Explosions of color, movement and music ricochets around the whole auditorium, and from the first minute you experience this frisson you realize that this isn't going to be an ordinary theater experience.
That’s when an amazing Ruben J. Carbajal briskly raps a cityscape into vibrant life over the rumbling rhythm of a bass line. Shredding the air with his arms, rhymes percolating on his tongue, he introduces us to the men and women whose daily troubles—overdue bills, overheated romances and overtaxed hearts—will form the episodic story and feed the imaginations of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, who live in this minutia of urban decay.
"In the heights, I buy my coffee and I go. Set my sights on only what I need to know. In the heights, money is tight but even so, when the lights go down I blast my radio," sings the cast as one by one each colorful character is introduced.
The engaging Mr. Carbajal himself (after more than 1000 appearances in the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton”) is front and center for much of “In the Heights,” which officially opened June 4th at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. He plays the central role of Usnavi (a handpicked name from his arriving immigrant parents upon seeing a U.S. Navy ship in the harbor) who dispenses all that café con leche at the local bodega, the regular pit-stop for a neighborhood full of outspoken characters.
Abuela Claudia (Ovation Award winner Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield; “Two Pictures in One”) is Usnavi’s surrogate grandmother and matriarch of the neighborhood, whose purchase of her daily lottery ticket on this hot summer morning just before the Fourth of July will have significant consequences for almost everyone in the ’hood.
Camila and Kevin Rosario, played by Crissy Guerrero (“On Your Feet”) and Director Perez (Nat’l Tour: “Nice Work if You Can Get it”), run Rosario’s, the gypsy taxi/limousine service next door to Claudia’s home. Benny (Hosea Mundi; “The Pajama Game”), their prized employee, harbors a secret (and forbidden) crush on their daughter, Nina (an exciting Daisy Marie Lopez), who has just returned for the summer from her freshman year at Stanford with a heavy conscience troubled by the economic stress the family is enduring to keep her there.
Down the block, Nina’s arrival adds a welcome new strand to the dense fabric of gossip woven daily by the women working in the hair salon, owned by the tart-tongued Daniela (New York based actor Shadia Fairuz; 1st Nat’l Broadway Tour: “On Your Feet”), who is happy to playfully fabricate artificial news to go with the fake nails, if necessary.
Over on the corner, an uncalculated exuberance touches young charmer Sonny (Jose Carlos Rivera; “Bonnie & Clyde”), Usnavi’s lothario cousin, who is spending the summer working at the bodega. He is an extremely intelligent young man who strives to emulate Usnavi, with a strong desire to better the core city and urban ghettos. "They're talking about kicking out all the dreamers...It's time to make some noise!"
The emotional heart of the show is actually the ambivalence most of the characters feel about their neighborhood, rendered with exacting, gritty verisimilitude from the sets by Music & Theatre Co. (right down to the George Washington Bridge in the background). Almost all these people are exiles from a history of greater economic want somewhere else— Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico — but their affection for the community they’ve forged in this sun-drenched, rundown barrio is shadowed by a desire to escape once again, to a life of surer promise. Unfortunately, with gentrification oozing inexorably up the West Side Highway, they are more likely to be forced across the bridges into more precarious neighborhoods.
In many ways “In the Heights” suggests an uptown “Rent,” sprinkled with salsa fresca but without all the sex, drugs and disease. Some of the more earnest anthems, effective as they are, run in grooves equally derived from Broadway formulas and the new power-pop idioms, but every number is sung with heart, urgency and solid showmanship—every voice cuts through the air like butter.
Particular standouts include the sweet Abuela Claudia’s Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield with her showstopper number “Paciencia y Fe,” Shadia Fairuz’ saucy Daniela singing “Carnaval del Barrio,” and the fierce Claudia Mulet (“Champagne”), who plays Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest—all with rich, powerful voices. A few of the numbers might even be described as good old-fashioned Broadway ballads, such as “It Won’t Be Long Now,” and “When You’re Home.”
The dazzling Choreography and street dancing, under the skillful, sure-handed direction of Marissa Herrera, included a sensational mix of hip hop and latin styles showcasing elastic bodies and fluidity of movement. It was as if heat filled the stage, like water escaping from a hydrant turns into steam as it hits the asphalt. Conspicuously noteworthy was Kevin Trinio Perdido, playing a sweet-hearted graffiti artist, who seemed to defy gravity with little springboards in his sneakers.
Under the enthusiastic guidance of the music director, Brent Crayon, the orchestra (a nine-member band playing multiple instruments) plays with a sense of excitement almost never heard emanating from a production pit. Bright, piping fanfares from the trumpets punctuate the dance numbers with elements of Cuban son montuno, guaracha, mambo, bomba and Latin jazz, while the merry tinkle of a steel drum laughs along with all the jokes. The players in the pit below seem to be having as much fun as the performers onstage.
That is saying plenty, for when this musical erupts in one of its expressions of collective joy, the energy it gives off could light up the George Washington Bridge for a year or two.
LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS AND MCCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT PRESENTS, IN THE HEIGHTS; Conceived by LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA; Book QUIARA ALEGRIA HUDES; Music and Lyrics LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA; Director BENJAMIN PEREZ; Co-Director & Choreographer MARISSA HERRERA; Music Director/Conductor BRENT CRAYON; Scenic Designer MUSIC AND THEATER CO.; Lighting Designer DONNY JACKSON; Sound Designer JOSH BESSOM; Projection Designer JON INFANTE; Costume Designer SHON LEBLANC; Costume Supervisor ADAM RAMIREZ; Hair, Wig & Makeup Designer KAITLIN YAGEN; Technical Director KEVIN CLOWES; Properties Coordinator KEVIN WILLIAMS; Casting Director JULIA FLORES; Production Stage Manager JOHN W. CALDER III; Assistant Stage Manager LISA PALMIRE; Publicist DAVID ELZER/DEMAND PR.
WITH: RUBEN J. CARBAJAL (Usnavi); CLAUDIA MULET (Vanessa); SHADIA FAIRUZ (Daniela); JOSE CARLOS RIVERA (Sonny); LINDSEY DANTES (Carla); (Sonny); BENJAMIN PEREZ (Kevin); DAISY MARIE LOPEZ (Nina); HOSEA MUNDI (Benny); CRISSY GUERRERO (Camila); JACQUELIN LORRAINE SCHOFIELD (Abuela Claudia); KEVIN SOLIS (Piragua Guy); and KEVIN TRINIO PERDIDO (Graffiti Pete). ENSEMBLE: STEVEN-ADAM AGDEPPA; MARCOS ALEXANDER; REMMIE BOURGEOIS; BIANA BRANDON; ANDREA DOBBINS; JUAN GUILLEN; HALEY IZURIETA; RACHEL JOSEFINA; JODI MARKS; MONIKA PENA; MARIO ROCHA; TRISTAN TURNER; ISAAC UHLENBERG; BRIDGET WHITMAN.
IN THE HEIGHTS will run through Sunday, June 26th, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays at 8:00PM, Saturdays at 2:00PM and 8:00PM and Sundays at 1:30PM and 6:30PM. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Tickets range from $17-84, and can be purchashed at La Mirada Theatre’s website: www.lamiradtheatre.com or by called the box office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. La Mirada Theatre is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in La Mirada. Parking is free.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: TAKE Creative