In the Heights, now packing them in at Olney Theatre Center, has a visceral and emotional score coupled with a story of finding your home and your heart closer than expected. Behold the power of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s freshman effort – being followed next year by his Hamilton at the Kennedy Center. In the Heights is brought to life in a faithful, touching and compelling co-production with Round House Theatre that is, as of this date, now playing to sold out audiences and enjoying its second extension.
Being the musical that put the mega-talented composer / lyricist / rapper / actor on the map when it debuted in 2008, In The Heights was a phenomenal debut by the multi-talented Miranda. His captivating work is firmly buttressed by an irresistable book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. In the Heights spins a charming tale of extended family and friends who live and work on a street in the Washington Heights neighborhood at the edge of Manhattan. The beauty of the show is that it maintains a sharp focus on a handful of neighbors and friends, all connected in various ways but mostly as the regular customers of the corner bodega run by Usnavi, a charming and likeable young man, who serves as a host of sorts to the other characters.
The direction and choreography executed by Marcos Santana contributes mightily to the effortless flow of the production, which practically leaps off of the stage at certain moments, and feels as intimate as a whisper at others. Also adding to the first class stagecraft and beautiful storytelling at work, scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon has provided a detailed set which is a perfect slice of Washington Heights, down to the last detail of graffiti and upstairs apartments.
Following in Miranda’s large shoes at Olney is Robin De Jesus, who plays the role as if Miranda had written it for him. Flashing an easy smile, with an open, honest face, De Jesus makes a strong impression from his opening lines in the prologue. De Jesus delivers the rap-like patter and Usnavi’s other musical sections skillfully, and brings his own boy-next-door quality to the role.
Of course, his performance might be informed by also being an original cast member of Broadway’s In the Heights, premiering in the role of Usnavi’s awkward and energetic cousin Sonny, for which he earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a musical. De Jesus graduated to the leading role with honors and is reason enough to try to snag a ticket for the hot-selling Olney run.
Speaking of Sonny, Michael Mainwaring plays Usnavi’s cousin and brings his own full-tilt, dynamic and endearing take on the part. Like an overgrown kid, Mainwaring charms the paint right off of the graffiti. Rounding out Usnavi’s extended and loving family, Abuela Claudia (Rayanne Gonzales) who helped raise him after the death of his parents. Gonzales, a veteran of Broadway and a number of productions in the DMV, exudes warmth, strength and love as she interacts with Usnavi, Sonny and other characters who look on her with affection. And Gonzales received a prolonged ovation after her heartfelt rendering of “Paciencia Y Fe” (Patience and Faith).
Crisscrossing with Usnavi and his family’s story are the lives of the ladies at the local salon, those connected to a car service, and other regulars from the block – all inhabited by a winning ensemble of performers who bring infectious verve to the stage. Broadway and DC theatre regular Natascia Diaz is a hoot as the saucy hairdresser Daniela, ably backed up by Melissa Victor as her ditzy sidekick. Diaz uses her supple dance skills and expansive vocal prowess to lead the cast in the showstopping “Carnaval Del Barrio.”
Mili Diaz is Nina, the neighborhood girl everyone thought would make something of herself and succeed in college. Mili Diaz possesses a lovely voice and endears herself immediately to one and all with the folky and powerful “Breathe.” Nina’s parents, the proud and hard-working Rosarios, are played with a balance of tough love and open arms by Danny Bolero and Vilma Gil. When she comes back to the neighborhood, admitting she dropped out of college, Nina throws her parents into turmoil. Their car service may have to be sold, plus her parents do not approve of her beau, one of their employees.
Nina’s love interest, Benny, is played with honesty by Marquise White, another example of perfect casting.
As the neighborhood beauty and one who longs to leave the confines of their little corner of Washington Heights, Linedy Genao makes an auspicious Olney debut as Vanessa. Usnavi’s long-term crush who leaves the bodega owner nearly speechless, Genao’s Vanessa captures the frustrations of a young woman drawn to the world at large, with big dreams and a big, expressive voice to match. Her scenes with De Jesus, as Vanessa and Usnavi dance around their romance, are strong, since both characters think they want to spread their wings while being drawn to each other.
In the Heights
closes October 22, 2017
Details and tickets
Even the ever-present strolling flavored ice peddler, the Piragua Guy, played with aplomb and a crystal clear, trumpet of a voice by Tobias A. Young, makes a strong impression along with Scean Aaron, Eunice Bae, Sharlance Carter, Andre Hinds, Jesse Jones, Ashleigh King, and Rebecca Kritzer.
The perfect blend of storytelling, direction, casting and design works to provide an experience of the multi-ethnic mixture of humanity that is part and parcel with a little neighborhood such as the one Miranda and Hudes have invented for In the Heights. It is also a valentine to the men and women who move to the U.S. to turn their hopes into realities – a true American tale, brilliant, bright and full of dreams.
In the Heights . Conception, Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda . Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes . Directed and choreographed by Marcus Santana . Cast: Scean Aaron, Eunice Bae, Danny Bolero, Sharlane Conner, Robin De Jesus, Mili Diaz, Natascia Diaz, Linedy Genao, Vilma Gil, Rayanne Gonzales, Andre Hinds, Jesse Jones, Ashleigh King, Rebecca Kritzer, Michael J. Mainwaring, Juan Drigo Ricafort, Melissa Victor, Marquise White, Tobias A. Young . Music direction and programming by Christopher Youstra . Scenic design: Milagros Ponce de Leon . Costume design: Frank Lebowitz . Lighting design: Cory Pattack . Sound design: Matt Rowe . Production stage manager: Karen Currie . Co-produced by Olney Theatre Center and Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.