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REVIEW: In The Heights - Marina High School Theatre

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...Hey! Can I help it if my soul loves a kickin' beat?"

“In the Heights,” the hit musical with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, was presented by Marina High School in Huntington Beach last week in a 3-day weekend run, February 21st through 23rd. The vibrant show was performed on the Huntington Beach High School Auditorium and Bell Tower Mainstage flawlessly, as Marina's excellent cast explored the joys, heartbreaks and bonds of a Latino community struggling to redefine home in rhythm and song.

If you’ve never seen “In the Heights” and think it’s probably an old-fashioned musical, you’ll get your ears opened from the amazing very first number, a pure adrenaline blast of lively Latin beats and hip-hop energy. As soon as the curtain lifts, the atmosphere crackles with electricity and it become clear that the audience isn’t just here to watch the ride - they would be on the ride. Explosions of color, movement and music ricochetes around the whole auditorium, and from the first minute attendees experience the frisson that this isn't going to be an ordinary theater experience.

The story and plot of “In the Heights,” is a heart-tugging story of family ties and the immigrant experience – in this case, the Dominican-Puerto Rican-Cuban experience in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, 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.

After a 2007 Off-Broadway run, the show opened on Broadway in March 2008, and was promptly nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four, including the 2008 Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography. A film adaptation of the musical is set for release in the summer of 2020.

Brilliantly Directed by Amber-Sky Skipps and Jodi Kimura and Produced by Artistic Director Eric Graham, the show’s Music Director was Robert Ramirez. The production features an extraordinarily talented cast of actors, singers, dancers and musicians from Marina High School who bring this big, compelling, American story to life with remarkable energy and verve. The dazzling Choreography and street dancing, under the skillful, sure-handed direction of Michael Gonzalez and Amber-Sky Skipps, included a sensational mix of hip hop and latin styles to make it both highly disciplined and intricately multicultural; the fluidity of movement on stage in the numbers was simply amazing as the ensemble danced like no one was watching and became one in unison with precise movements and meticulous timing.

With hip-hop and Latin styles of music having been fused solidly into musical theater since the dawn of “Hamilton,” this production speaks the musical language of the new generation. Hip-hop is a storytelling device - just poetry put to spoken word, and those rapid-fire hip-hop passages are very key parts of this narrative.

But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score ranges far beyond hip-hop. He infuses the composition with salsa, Latin jazz, Latin pop and island-inflected rhythms. And there are also many numbers that might be described as good old-fashioned Broadway ballads, such as “It Won’t Be Long Now,” and “When You’re Home.”

"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," sing the cast as one by one each colorful character is introduced.

Usnavi (Michael Iskander), the narrator and central character who still owns the tiny bodega corner store his immigrant parents bought in Washington Heights, still dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. Usnavi has an affection for Vanessa, played by Tyler Serrano, a sexy hairdresser who never has to pay for her coffee and with big dreams of her own; Graffiti Beat (Emme Armijo), a break-dancing artist who needs just one person to believe in her; Abuela Claudia (Isabella Saporito), Usnavi’s grandmother and the loving matriarch of the barrio who arrived from Cuba in 1943 - the source of wisdom and emotional strength, who is the grandmother every child wishes for.

Other cast members integral to the story are Daniela (Isabel Melgoza), the hilarious dramatic owner of the salon where neighborhood girls go to gossip; Nina (Sophia Flores), the first in the Rosario family to go to college, and who is viewed by everyone as the one who "made it out of the barrio"; Benny (Jalon Brown), who dreams of owning his own business and has fallen in love with Nina; and Sonny (Kawika Jensen), the sassy, superficial, but sensitive younger cousin of Usnavi who adds a needed spark to the Heights. Other neighborhood characters include Ghada Nesheiwat as Carla, Madison Frost as Camila, Alan Arenas as Piragua and Quinn Ragan as Kevin.

The high-energy ensemble includes Izabel Adams, Roselyn Barrios, Brayden Beyer, Rebecca Brown, Hanna Dekhili, Bri Gonzalez, Karlee Kirk, Ramona Kriesel, Jaslyn LaBrada, Deanna Long, Marilyn McDonnell, Christian McIntire, Natalie Melgoza, Nathaniel Pena, Jackson Rayner, Giovanna Shimizu, Lindsay Stubbs, Danann Tyler, Jessica Whitten, Jacob Worrell, Zoe Wright and Lila Zook.

Featured Dancers include Olga Sophia Alvertos, Eric Cornwell, Benjamin Edwards, Mika Maricruz Galassi, Dehvyn Vuong, Paulina Ortiz, Delany Remp, Giselle Salazar, Karina Steele and Kallista Tungala. Karla Cruz plays Woman on Balcony, Benjamin Edwards also plays Jose, Mika Maricruz Galassi is also Yolanda, Ryan Serrano is Domingo and Kallista Tungala also plays a Club Girl.

So, life goes on in the barrio. Meanwhile, the Rosario family is dealing with the loss of their taxi/limo business when their daughter unexpectedly drops out of Stanford and falls for their non-Latino employee, Benny. The local unisex salon is moving to the Bronx and taking their staff with them. And too much is changing in the hood, when suddenly Usnavi finds out that someone in the neighborhood has just won $96,000 in the lottery! But it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

Counting Director Eric Graham, who also serves as Conductor, the show boasts an orchestra of twenty musicians that filled the chamber with elements of Cuban son montuno, guaracha, mambo, bomba and Latin jazz. On guitar was Alex Valencia, Bass was Nic Gonzalez, Percussion included Alexis Masingill, Jacob Mills and Marc Young. Drums were handled by Lucas Zumbado and keyboards/accompaniment played by James and Paul McGraith. On Reed instruments were Wes Perry, John Luong, Tori Manos, Thomas Pickett, Alana Haynes and Justin Lewis. Trumpet performed by Harry Ostrander, Avery Levin, Cade Gotthard and on trombone were Phineas Crisp and Chris Innes. Instrumental Director was John McGilligan.

The sets and props for the magnificently detailed set were designed and provided by The Music and Theatre Company. Production Assistant was Sarah Bielicki, Stage Manager was John Calder with Assist by Kara Dillard. Lighting was managed by Brandon Hawkinson, and Costumes were designed by Debbie Coogan with Assist by Nicole Armijo, Dianne Remp, Sally Frost and Michelle Claphan. Hair and Makeup was by Tawny Skipps and Props were also managed by Michelle Claphan.

What a show! This electrifying sensory feast by Marina High School will no doubt be the sleeper no one was expecting during the spring award shows. Many fist-bumps to the creative teams, cast members and techies who made this experience such a syncopated, beautifully staged and performed musical delight. The music was cool as a cucumber, the beat, tight as a drum, and my synapses was jumpin’ like beans in a tin.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts


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