A Celebration of Family, Pride and Dreams
While the frigid winter temperatures and icy winds persist in Chicago, in the cozy theatrical world of “In the Heights” it’s a blistering hot day in early July. Bursting onto the Marriott stage, Lin Manuel Miranda’s loving portrait of the Dominican American neighborhood of Washington Heights, located in New York’s Upper Manhattan, absolutely erupts with joy and energy from the very beginning. The production is a celebration of family, pride and unlimited dreams, related through the stories of people of all ages who reside in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. The sizzling atmosphere is fueled by Miranda’s hot, pulsating hip-hop score. It’s embodied by the superb direction by James Vasquez, the fiery, nine-piece orchestra conducted by Noah Landis and, especially, the electrifying dances created by one of Chicago’s most inventive and exciting choreographers, William Carlos Angulo.
This four-time 2008 Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical embraces a celebration of home, family and our world of ever-changing traditions. In this and other ways the musical resembles a modern-day, Latino version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Like Tevye, that musical’s main character, Usnavi, also serves here as the play’s lovable narrator, often breaking the fourth wall and interacting directly with the audience. While also playing an important role in the story, Usnavi becomes the audience’s guide and a reliable commentator within this close-knit barrio.
Both musicals also open with production numbers that set the tone and introduce the other characters. Featuring a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Miranda’s music and lyrics, we first meet and come to care about Usnavi, played by the charismatic Joseph Morales. This multitalented young actor also starred in the First National Tour of “In the Heights,” as well as having played the title role in Miranda’s most famous creation, “Hamilton.” Usnavi is an amiable and caring young man who owns the neighborhood bodega. Soon we’re introduced to another important character in this story, the young man’s independent, surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia (warmly played by Crissy Guerrero). This sweet woman is like a wise, loving caretaker of everyone in the neighborhood. She enjoys playing the Lottery, saving memorabilia and nurturing the younger residents of the barrio.
Next, there’s Nina. She’s the first in her family to attend college, as well as the first person to leave the neighborhood in order to achieve something greater. Nina’s portrayed by the beautiful and gifted Addie Morales, who will be remembered by Marriott theatergoers as Maria in their production of “The Sound of Music.” Nina’s loving and financially struggling parents, Kevin and Camila, are played with care and empathy by Rudy Martinez and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel. They own a car service that’s managed by their young, hardworking African-American employee, Benny. He’s skillfully portrayed by Yassir Muhammad. He and Nina have a secret romance that’s been brewing over the years.
Other notable characters include Sonny, Usnavi’s young, impulsive and melodramatic cousin. He’s brilliantly played by the likable and talented Jordan Arredondo, who recently appeared in Drury Lane’s production of “Grease.” Gossiping hair stylists Daniela and Carla are brought to life by the always delightful and mega-talented Lillian Castillo and Michelle Lauto, two of Chicago’s finest musical comedy actresses. A stunningly multitalented triple threat, Paola V. Hernandez makes her Marriott debut portraying Vanessa, their liberal-minded co-worker at the salon. She’s Usnavi’s dream girl, as well as a girl with a dream of her own. Add to this ensemble other likable characters, each with his own story, such as the sweet Piragua Guy (Andres J. Deleon) and Graffiti Pete (the incredibly talented Phillip Wood).
As in other great urban musicals, the entire ensemble of gifted and enjoyable performers make this show sing and pulsate with rhythm. The warmth and charm of all these Latino characters, including a brilliant chorus of actors/singers/dancers, tirelessly carry the show, warm up the winter night and drive this excellent production all the way up to the Heights.