Powerhouse cast brings down the house in Marriott Theatre’s sizzling ‘In the Heights’
It’s evident from the thrilling opening sequence that director James Vasquez has captured the brimming, crowded heart of the musical.
“In the Heights” is a show bursting with vibrant, swirling storytelling. In the Pulitzer-nominated 2005 musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book) capture the world of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where longtime residents and local businesses find themselves on the cusp of being gentrified out of their community.
In the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre’s staging running through March 17, it’s evident from the thrilling opening sequence that director James Vasquez has captured the brimming, crowded heart of “In the Heights.”
The musical begins before the bustle of the neighborhood fills the in-the-round space with glorious noise. On a stage lit like early dawn, a lone graffiti artist appears. What follows is an explosive hip-hop dance solo from Graffiti Pete (Phillip Wood), a stunning showstopper that lets every person in the house know that this “In the Heights” means business and is truly special.
Before they won Pulitzers (Hudes in 2012 for “Water by the Spoonful,” Miranda in 2016 for “Hamilton,”), the authors created a musical at once specific and timeless: “In the Heights” is the story of predominantly Latino immigrants — many with roots in the Dominican Republic — striving to preserve their families, culture, and community in the face of inevitable, inescapable change.
The plot is ruddered by Usnavi (Joseph Morales), who runs the bodega left to him by his parents. As in Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the verbiage flies fast and furious through a variety of musical styles. With William Carlos Angulo’s captivating choreography and music direction by Ryan T. Nelson, “In the Heights” sounds as good as it looks — mostly.
The storyline unfolds during the sweltering early days of July. Local academic prodigy Nina Rosario (Addie Morales) has just arrived home from college, the whole neighborhood ready to celebrate her success. Nina’s parents Kevin (Rudy Martinez) and Camila (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) own a taxi company, a business they started after Kevin left the Domican Republic, unwilling to follow his father as a sugar cane farmer.
Rosario’s employee and aspiring entrepreneur Benny (Yasir Muhammad) nurtures a budding romance with Nina, despite Kevin’s unwavering pronouncement that Benny — who is Black — will never be good enough for Nina.
Over at the local salon, owner Daniela (Lillian Castillo, all authoritative verve and tough-love compassion) and stylists Carla (Michelle Lauto) and Vanessa (Paola V. Hernandez) tweeze brows and gossip with a delicious mix of love and salaciousness while packing up: Like so many others, the rent has escalated beyond Daniela’s means.
Among the other marvelously memorable denizens of “In the Heights” are Jordan Arredondo as Usnavi’s younger cousin Sonny, a firebrand activist-in-the-making, and Andres J. DeLeon’s Piraguero, whose arias about shaved-ice give the neighborhood an operatic flair.
Usnavi’s bodega serves as a nexus for myriad hopes and dreams, his customers subtly — or not — revealing their frustrations, triumphs and desires they buy cafe con leche and newspapers. A winning lottery ticket and a 4th of July blackout combine to create incendiary tension.
There’s not a weak link in the cast. Muhammad’s flow delivering traffic reports would make any real-life traffic jam a whole lot more bearable. Gonzalez-Cadel’s “Enough” is a full-stop display of matriarchal power — which will not be diminished just because the family business is in her husband’s name.
Morales gives Nina sweetness cut through with intense drive and an overwhelming fear of failure. Hernandez’ Vanessa is a mix of yearning, hope and frustration — despite saving for years, she can’t convince anyone to rent her an apartment on the other side of the George Washington Bridge.
Set designer Arnel Sancianco hangs signage above the stage to cue the audience into the locale and its people, with lighting designer Jesse Klug evoking the aforementioned bridge with a suspended canopy of glimmering bulbs that morph into club lights.
It’s the club scene where the show stumbles slightly. Thanks to an extremely exasperating bit of blocking, the sightlines of the solo/duo dancers set centerstage are all but completely blocked by clumps of ensemble members positioned on the outskirts of the in-the-round stage. And an all-important mural revealed in the climactic final moments has a similar fate: It’s underwhelming because it’s tough to see.
None of that should keep you away. “In the Heights” overflows with heart and heat, the tropics of the DR merging with the baked asphalt of the Heights to deliver a sizzling story rooted in history and as relevant as today’s headlines.