¡Viva El Barrio!: A Review of “In The Heights” at Marriott Theatre
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-Award winning musical about the strength of the communal family, set to a Latin-infused hip-hop soundtrack, has arrived at the M in Lincolnshire.
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes (Tony Award nominee for Best Book of a Musical), fast-paced musical numbers and tender moments are directed by James Vásquez to play to all four sides of the Marriott’s arena-style theater, with music by Miranda performed by a band conducted by Noah Landis.
Set in the barrio of Washington Heights in Manhattan, “In The Heights” is set on a street lined with local businesses, including the bodega inherited by Usnavi (Joseph Morales), who operates the store along with his younger cousin, Sonny (Jordan Arredondo). Like a hip-hop opera singer, Usnavi expresses love for his community mixed with indignation at his own poverty by speaking in the style of quick and syllable-winding rap. After his surrogate Aunt Claudia (Crissy Guerrero) happens upon a change of fortune, the possibility of escape from the barrio becomes a real possibility.
A dual narrative is presented through Nina (Addie Morales), a prodigious wunderkind who surprises family and friends when she drops out of college after losing her scholarship. Nina is too proud to ask her parents for money, but Kevin (Rudy Martinez) is willing to risk his taxi dispatch company to put her back on track—whether Nina or her mother, Camila (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), like it or not.
To complicate matters even more, Nina falls in love with Benny (Yasir Muhammad), a driver for Kevin’s company whom he had previously taken under his wing, but now disapproves of, and the couple wrestle with their sense of duty to family versus what is best for themselves.
Stylized aspects of inner-city life are ably represented. Graffiti coats every surface. Denizens stop in and out of local stores to catch the day’s gossip. As Benny and Nina share an intimate moment during the song “Sunrise,” other residents can be seen sharing their own moments off to the side, mirroring the close quarter living of big city life.
The supporting cast of characters are archetypes of a diverse urban Latin community. Flavored-ice vendor Piragüero (Andres J. DeLeon) rolls his cart through town singing his “Piragua” song—“¡Tengo de mango, tengo de parcha, de piña y de fresa!” Graffiti Pete (Phillip Wood) is equal artist and a nuisance. Daniela (Lillian Castillo), the sassy proprietor of the local salon, uses her voluptuous vocal talent to unite the community through their shared Latin heritages during the showstopping number “Carnaval del Barrio,” shouting “¡Pa’rriba esa bandera!” (Up with that flag!) after which knowing audience members wave flags from Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The dancing is fresh and doesn’t rely on familiar musical theater movement. Choreographer William Carlos Angulo combines elements of hip-hop—breakdancing, locking—with salsa and rumba dance styles. The best dancing comes during the song “The Club/Fireworks” as Usnavi shyly tries to impress the salon’s shampoo girl, the vivacious Vanessa (Paola V. Hernández), with some slick moves while the ensemble shake their hips and perform daring dips and spins.
While “Hamilton” is Miranda’s biggest claim to fame, don’t overlook his first big hit. Whereas the former’s rapping founding fathers is surreal, “In The Heights” is down to earth, as real as it is riveting.