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Vibrant “In the Heights” Delivers Sizzling Latino Passion to Marriott Stage

Lin-Manuel Miranda is now a household name. The actor/composer’s most famous creation is “Hamilton” – the hip-hop musical detailing the exploits of founding father Alexander Hamilton. But before Miranda made the world fall in love with his stylized musical about life in the Colonies, he first earned honors as the toast of Broadway with “In the Heights”.

Miranda originally started scripting the story and music for “In the Heights” while in college. It premiered as an 80-minute one-act musical that audiences described as a “hip hop version of RENT.” It caught the eye of the right people, and was expanded and developed for Broadway.

“In the Heights” opened Off-Broadway in 2007, featuring music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. It then moved to Broadway in 2008. The production was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography, and the big one: Best Musical.

Now, under the direction of James Vasquez, “In the Heights” comes to Marriott Theatre in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. Judging by the ear-shattering excitement of the opening night audience, “In the Heights” is a blockbuster. Indeed, the capacity house was filled not only with traditional theatergoers, but also those who couldn’t pass up the musical’s Latino-centric story and Miranda score. Everyone will want to see this show! Marriott’s “In the Heights” is a fun, touching, beautiful masterpiece!

Set in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, New York, “In the Heights” is the story of a largely Latino neighborhood. The central focus is Usnavi, the young owner of a small convenience store he inherited from his family. He runs the bodega with the assistance of his young cousin Sonny, while trying to gain the courage to ask out Vanessa – a stunning beauty who works at the local beauty salon.

On the hottest day of the year, as appliances break down and tensions simmer, Usnavi and Vanessa’s friend Nina returns from college. Attending Stanford University on a scholarship, Nina is seen as the hope for the neighborhood’s future and an inspiration to other minorities in the community looking to better themselves.

Nina’s parents, who run the local cab company, live for the purpose of seeing their daughter succeed. They are shocked when they learn Nina has dropped out of school because the scholarship didn’t cover her living expenses and working two jobs to come up with the difference robbed her of the ability to pursue her studies with proper diligence.

What ensues is a battle of wills and disagreements about how to approach the future. Usnavi wants to close his shop and move to his ancestral home of the Dominican Republic. Vanessa wants to escape life from under her dysfunctional mother’s roof. Nina’s parents want her to return to school at any cost. Nina just wants to find the acceptance in the outside world that she always felt in the old neighborhood.

Marriott Theatre has a reputation for bringing in the best talent in the nation for its musicals. Joseph Morales, who played Usnavi in the First Broadway National Tour, reprises the central role with the polished dexterity you would expect of someone who has perfected their character through years of performances. If you can’t see Lin-Manuel Miranda play the part, Joseph Morales is the next best thing. He’s that good.

This is not, however, a recreation of the Broadway or touring versions of the show. Part of the thrill of seeing musical productions at Marriott is seeing how the talented directors fit their projects into the in-the-round staging area the theatre is famous for.

Translating Broadway musicals written for proscenium stages to the theatre-in-the-round format is a unique talent. Marriott has pulled off some minor miracles over the years in their innovative ways of converting shows to work in their space. The recent smash hit “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” being a prime example.

“In the Heights” isn’t the easiest production to adapt to an in-the-round staging. There are scenic requirements of the show that would be a challenge to any design team to make work in the round.

The show starts off with a graffiti artist tagging Usnavi’s bodega. The fact that the term artist can be applied to representatives of the world of vandalism is very apropos. Graffiti art demonstrates that something doesn’t have to be conventional to be beautiful; Marriott’s “In the Heights” demonstrates that a musical can be unconventional and still 100% satisfying to traditional audiences.

Like “Hamilton”, Miranda’s first Broadway hit uses a mixture of both singing and rapping. The latter mode of delivery is often done with very creative, stylized tempos and phrasing. Morales’s delivery of his character’s hip-hop songs is delicious to experience. However, that’s not even the best part. The cast is filled with singers that will send shivers down your spine.

The songs themselves are both catchy and emotionally moving. As exemplified with the title opening number and the Act I blockbuster “96,000”, the songs often start off quietly and then build to an emotional climax so intense you will feel the tingle of physical euphoria.

Addie Morales, who took home Life and Time’s 2022 Heartstrings Awardfor her starring performance in Marriott’s “Sound of Music”, plays Nina. Fresh off the Broadway National Tour of “Les Misérables”, Morales has one of the most stunning voices in musical theatre today, complimented by a sweet demeanor that radiates balance and beauty.

Paola V. Hernández is exquisitely beautiful as Vanessa, a rough-around-the-edges girl with a chip on her shoulder, put there by some unfair challenges she has faced but survived. Hernández has mastered Vanessa’s attitude, as well as the soft elements of the character’s personality that slip out from time to time. It is her voice, though, that will make you fall in love with Hernández.

From top to bottom, the cast overall is exceptional. Yasir Muhammad gives the best performance of his career as Benny – one of the few token non-Latinos in the neighborhood who finds himself falling for the boss’ daughter. His impassioned delivery shows a deep connection to the unique and varied musical styles of the demanding score.

Lillian Costillo and Michelle Lauto both turn in excellent supporting performances. With subtle comedy, Lauto makes sure that her character Carla’s presence is always felt whenever on stage. Costillo plays Daniela, the owner of the beauty shop where gossip flows in an endless stream of unverified stories. When you tack this on her other recent standout performances, Costillo is on her way to the Comic Relief Hall of Fame.

Other key members of the cast include Crissy Guerrero in the pivotal role of Abuela Claudia, the powerful Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel and Rudy Martinez as Nina’s protective parents, Jordan Arredondo as Sonny, and Andres J. Deleon as Piraguero with an angelic voice and devilish grin.

The dancers are absolutely incredible. They are all so good it seems almost criminal to single just one dancer out, but Kiana Rodriguez is so ferociously good it demands it. Rodriguez is utterly hypnotic in the way she moves her body. She’s got it all: precision body control, expert technique, and an attitude of blazing intensity. It may be mere coincidence but the fact that she’s in my son’s favorite movie, “Blue’s Big City Adventure” gives her all near goddess status.

Every member of the ensemble shines in their respective moments. The players include Wesley J. Barnes, Carisa Gonzalez, Justin Payton Nelson, Isa Ramirez, Alix Rhode, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Sebastian Trevino, Dristina Benninghoff Uribe, Arik Vega, and Phillip Wood.

The choreographer giving the dancers their sexy steps is William Carlos Angulo. My only wish in the dance department was that Angulo had more dancers at his disposal. When the stage is full, the theatre undulates with an addictive passion. The fiery ambiance is a hot and steamy escape from Chicago’s winter temperatures.

Music direction, as per custom at Marriott Theatre, is expertly done by Ryan T. Nelson, with the orchestra conducted by Noah Landis. There was an uneven sound mix throughout opening night, but was sorted out by the end of the evening.

Costume design is by Harri Horsley, scenic design is by Arnel Sancianco, lighting design is by Jesse Klug, sound design is by Michael Daly, wig design is by Ray Sanchez, properties are designed by Sally Zack, Adrian Aguilar serves as fight choreographer, dialect coach is Cynthia Santos DeCure, production manager is Meg Love, stage manager is Richard Stimer, and intimacy director is Katie Johannigman. The incredible Heron Agency serves as the theatre’s press representative.

“In the Heights” is scheduled to run Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., with select Thursday 1:00 p.m. shows.

Make your reservations now. Prepare to sizzle!