Theatre Under the Stars opened its new season with In the Heights, pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2005 musical about a Latino neighborhood in New York City, last week. From stage design to performances, this regional production by TUTS starts its new chapter on a high note.
Modeled after NYC's Washington Heights, the set is sprinkled with bodegas and apartment buildings, while the George Washington Bridge shines in the background. In this historically Latino community, Miranda’s story encapsulates the lives of first and second-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, amongst others. But regardless of race or background, all audiences can identify with the American dream, ranging from getting your own apartment to graduating from Stanford.
In the world Miranda creates with In the Heights, there is a bond between immigrants, even if they come from different places. Everyone experiences economic, social and political hardships that bring them together, making Washington Heights a unique community that is not monolithically derived from one particular country, but rather dramatizes the interactions and emotional bonds of the neighborhood based on the residents' experiences.
The production also includes love stories. And dancing. And songs. Really, really good songs.
Audiences can expect a fantastic time thanks to the mixture of rap, hip-hop, love ballads and dance numbers that translate into sheer bliss, but without the shallowness that so often characterizes even the most entertaining musicals. The book is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and features entwined stories of love, social mobility and ambition that most Americans can identify with, regardless of ethnic or social background. The music and lyrics by Miranda are captivating and delivered by such stellar vocalists, you leave thinking about this show for a long time.
I loved the original, spot-on choreography, as well as the use of slow-motion moments to emphasize regularities in community life and the passage of time. Usnavi De La Vega, played by Anthony Lee Medina, rhythmically introduces us to the neighborhood, his coffee sales, his love interest and his place in the universe. His charisma prepares us for two connected storylines about Nina Rosario (Michelle Beth Herman) and Vanessa (Chelsea Zeno). I won’t give away how Usnavi gets his name, or how Nina did at Stanford or if Vanessa gets an apartment and a boyfriend. But I will share that you won't be disappointed.
These leads are fantastic. (I had to channel my Methodist upbringing to resist the urge to dance during most of the numbers—they are that contagious!) This is a true ensemble performance about an entire community, and Kevin (Danny Bolero) and Camila Rosario (April Ortiz) are equally as excellent as Abuela Claudia (Rayanne Gonzales).
One of my favorite characters was Daniela (Isabel Santiago), owner of a beauty shop and the community wit. Part Sofia Vergara, part Charo, Santiago stole the show whenever she appeared in a scene, while her beauty and comedic landing didn’t upstage her impressive vocals and dancing ability. The women of this ensemble are superlative, and Santiago is someone that younger actresses and vocalists need to study. She has all the plates spinning in the air, and none of them come crashing down. She's truly a rising star.
In the Heights is ensemble musical theater at its best—I keep listening to the soundtrack, letting it feed my American spirit, even though my ancestors emigrated from Scotland long ago (and I don't care for kilts, plaid, beer or, heaven forbid, haggis pudding.) But regardless, In the Heights delivers a true American dream.
Thru Sept 25. Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS), 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. tuts.com