In The Heights in Spanish is a show to shout about. The Broadway smash by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, that swept New York’s 2008 theatre awards, including the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical, doesn’t disappoint. Originally written by Miranda in English, this Spanish translation by Amaury Sanchez with English surtitles, makes GALA’s 41st season-ender uniquely different and adds a surreal magical dimension to the already entertaining musical.
There is a collective joy in this In The Heights, with the translation of the English libretto and dialogue into Spanish. Some numbers come across with greater impact, such as the exquisite “Alabanza,” which means “Praise” in English, sung to memorialize the death of someone from the neighborhood. Staged with the actors holding candles and descending the two aisles, the Spanish translation, for my ear, made the powerful scene even more beautiful. “Paciencia Y Fe,” another song about wisdom, moved me to tears. This glorious song sounds more powerful when delivered in Spanish (paciencia), than in English (patience).
GALA Hispanic Theatre’s productions have always stood out for inventive theatrical values. The same is true here where Elizabeth J. McFadden’s set shines the spotlight on New York’s Washington Street Bridge, as seen from New York’s largely Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, drenched in blue light,(lighting design by Christopher Annas-Lee.) Grotesque faces of graffiti women and men glare out at us from background walls stage left.
We soon see that it’s Luis Salgado’s inventive choreography and ingenious direction, using every balcony, nook and cranny of the Tivoli auditorium and stage, where GALA achieves a break-through musical milestone in its performing history.
The twelve actors in the ensemble are superb, delivering inspired performances, starting with the first full-cast number, “In The Heights,” a spectacular show stopper that introduces surreal elements to the show.
Flickering blue and yellow lights flash, project a surreal atmosphere. The blend of staccato rap lyrics, and rapid salsa dancing captures the nervous energy of competition. The dancers freeze, as if this is the trap of being poor. Then the frenetic dancing starts over again, backed by Latino pop, along with street rhythm emanate from a well-balanced upstage center balcony band, conducted by Walter “Bobby” McCoy.
The dances, ranging from hip-hop to Caribbean, along with classical jazz movements, mix the evening into a fusion of jubilant modern dance. And it’s this dance fusion that elevates this musical into a dream-like, allegorical realm. Upwardly mobile immigrants, who arrive with nothing but a dream—the American Dream – now have something and are sweating hard for to keep. And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics tell the tale of the Dominican barrio in America that represents all. “Everybody’s got a job; everybody’s got a dream.” Everybody’s going places. Upwardly mobile immigrants, who arrive with nothing but a dream – the American Dream – now have something of their own and are sweating hard for to keep.
I would call this In The Heights revolutionary in that it is not a star vehicle. When I saw In The Heights on Broadway in 2008, I came away dazzled by the astounding performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role of Usnavi. But under Luis Salgado’s direction, it has become an ensemble show, reminiscent of the Spanish classics. There are many major characters; all are important and each makes a contribution. For instance, Sonny, (Rafael Beato), the laid-back jokester who helps Usnavi in the bodega, is important as the one who has a social conscience. During the blackout, Sonny is the altruistic one who guards the bodega from vandalism. And it’s Sonny, in the last scene, who hires Graffiti Pete to paint a memorial mural of the revered Abuela Claudia.
Juan Luis Espinal, a newcomer to GALA, plays Usnavi as wired with kinetic energy. One of the main characters, Usnavi, named for one of the first ships his parents saw when they docked in America, is opening his bodega, a neighborhood grocery for poor folks. His De La Vega Bodega advertises “Candy, Lucky Lotto,” that caters to the locals and specializes by not specializing. Acting as a narrator, Usnavi chases off Graffiti Pete, usually a male role, played here by Myriam Gadri. No sex discrimination among wall artists here.
Usnavi is still central by holding the separate vignettes together into an ensemble piece. He tells us how rough life is with everybody under pressure. We meet Abuela (which means grandmother in Spanish) Claudia, passionately played by mellow-voiced Michele Rios, who sits on her apartment stoop, on “her corner.” Originally from Cuba, she had never returned home, but is everybody’s grandmother. She took care of Usnavi when his parents died. She is known for sharing her lifelong wisdom.
Vanessa is the ambitions knock-out barrio beauty, (Verónica Alvarez,) whom Usnavi secretly adores, who dreams of flying out of J.F.K. on a big plane. She sings. “It Won’t Be Long Now.” Vanessa works for Daniela, played by cool-headed Scheherazade Quiroga, owner of the Unisex Salon, “Sueños de la Isla/Dreams of the Island.” The beauty shop attendants, Carla (Gabriella Pérez), and Vanessa, have hilarious bits, not to be missed. Each character, economically stressed and deeper in debt, has a territory. This barrio is on the brink of positive change because of these exuberant, competitive people.
Nina Rosario, her soul in her eyes, played by Laura Lebrón, returns home to the barrio, after a freshman year at Stanford on scholarship. She’s got a big problem. In her stunning song, “Breathe,” sung with a heartbreaking yearning, Nina tells us she has to break it to her parents that “The kid couldn’t hack it,” and she has dropped out of college. When Nina gives her parents the news that she can only maintain passing grades, not high enough to continue scholarships, her father Kevin (José F. Capellán) blames himself. With gut-wrenching conviction, he belts out “Inútil/Useless.,” promising to do whatever it takes for Nina “…..Or all my work, all my life,/Everything I’ve sacrificed will have been useless.”
Kevin and Camila (Shadia Fairuz), Nina’s parents, who own the local taxi service, represent the immigrant parents who live through their child. Kevin sings, “…..she was going to change the world someday,” implying that her dream has become their dream and justifies more sacrifice. The immigrant father and mother exemplify rising expectations, their hope to fulfill what is impossible for them. What they didn’t get in life, they want for their child. But how can they sacrifice more for Nina so she can return to college?
As the dramatic conflict heightens, Nina doesn’t help the situation by falling in love with one of her dad’s taxi drivers, Benny, (Vaughn Ryan Midder.) Without revealing a spoiler, I can tell you that the culture may be Latino, but this story is not Romeo and Juliet. Even though Benny and Nina spend a night together and the parents disapprove of the match-up, this love affair does not veer into a tragic crack-up. Benny is an “honorary Latino,” because he doesn’t speak Spanish. But the emphasis is on the disconnect between Nina and her parents. While Nina was in California, she never wrote to them that she was quitting school. When the nuclear family reunites for three intense days, the scene is explosive. Yet, there’s a difference between dropping out and failure.
closes May 21, 2017
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In The Heights in Spanish boosts us into another dimension. It’s miraculous what ultimately happens. It’s not all a delirium, not a mirage that appears, then fades into nothingness. The characters’ past lives have significance. Abuela Claudia as a child, faced starvation if her mother didn’t find work. No work; no food. But in New York, Abuela tells us her mother finally got a job “….working as a maid./So we cleaned some homes, polishing with pride,/scrubbing the whole of the Upper East Side….” It was rough, but it was survival.
What makes this production stand out and worth experiencing, even in you have seen In The Heights before, are the expressions of respect for the older generation. Distilled in the musical number “Paciencia Y Fe/Patience and Faith.” Abuela Claudia, sung by vibrant-voiced, impassioned mezzo Michelle Rios says it all. Respect for the wisdom from living longer and providing structure and guidance for upcoming youth. Respect for traditional values can push us forward to fulfill the American Dream. The seniors, Camila and Kevin have an important point of view, something to say worth hearing.
Changing partners in the discotheque dance number ignites competition and causes chaos at the close of Act 1. A fight breaks out and a power failure sets off a blackout. But out of the chaos comes order. Suspense holds us enthralled. Will Nina return to Stanford and fulfill her parents’ dream? Will Nina and Benny ever get together? In the Heights tells us that when the community comes together, miracles can happen.
In The Heights. is performed in Spanish, with some English to better reflect the use of both languages by the characters. Surtitles translate Spanish to English and vica versa.
In The Heights was conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The music and lyrics were composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book was written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Spanish translation by Amaury Sánchez. Direction and choreography by Luis Salgado. The company: Verónica Alvarez, as Vanessa. Rafael Beato as Sonny. José F. Capellán as Kevin. Aaron Cobos is in the Ensemble; Juan Luis Espinal as Usnavi. Shadia Fairuz as Camila. Héctor Flores Jr. is in the Ensemble. Myriam Gadri as Graffiti Pete. Laura Lebrón as Nina. Felix Marchany as Piragua Guy. Vaughn Ryan Midder as Benny. J. José Ozuna is in the Ensemble. Melinette Pallares is in the Ensemble. Amaya Perea is in the Ensemble. Gabriella Pérez as Carla. Scheherazade Quiroga as Daniela. Nathalia Raigosa is in the Ensemble. Luis Ramos is in the Ensemble. Michelle Rios plays Abuela Claudia. Ma. Ximena Salgado is in the Ensemble.
Music Director is Walter “Bobby” McCoy. The costume designer is Robert Croghan; Properties managed by Tomy Koehler . Sound Designer is Roc Lee . Lighting Designer is Christopher Annas-Lee . Stage Manager/Regidora de Escena is Amanda Landis. Reuben Rosenthal is Technical Director/Director Técnico. Lena Salins serves as Production Manager/Gerente de Producción. Creative Consultant/Consultora Creativa is Healther Hogan.
Musicians: Bolero Singer, Doreen Montalvo, Walter “Bobby” McCoy, Conductor & Keyboard I, Jake Null, Keyboard 2; Mila Weiss, Reed 1; Dana Gardner, Reed 2; Don Junker, Trumpet; Ben Young, Guitar; Alex Aucoin, Drums; Doug Elliott, Trombone; Manny Arciniega, Percussion. Cover: Deborah Jacobson, Keyboard 2; Lindsay Williams, Reed; Jaime Ibacacje, Guitar; Dan Riggs, Percussion. The Dance Captain: Miriam Gadri.
Understudies are: Roberto Araujo (Piragua Guy), Diana Pou (Carla).
Hugo Medrano is Producer/Productor for GALA Hispanic Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.