Referenced more now as “the first show from the guy behind Hamilton,” the decade-old In the Heights created by current cultural darling Lin-Manuel Miranda burst spirited and joyful during its limited run at the Kennedy Center.
The infectious, warm-hearted musical showcasing the Latino immigrant community of New York City’s Washington Heights was the second installment of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series this season. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is up next in the series in June, the same month that a touring production of Hamilton blows in.
Miranda’s loving nod to the people and place in which he grew up in nearby Inwood takes place over a sweltering three days around the Fourth of July. The conventional plot follows a group of likable characters struggling with everyday hopes and dreams, disappointments and change.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) the shy bodega owner and audience guide rattles off on the show’s themes and characters in the opening rap number “In the Heights”: his folks have passed and he yearns to lie on the beach in the Dominican Republic; in the meantime, he runs his parents’ mom and pop shop, serves up sweet café con leche and listens to the community voice its longings and concerns. The rents are getting higher and people are moving out—“everybody’s stressed, yes, but they press through the mess, bounce checks and wonder what’s next.”
Vanessa (Vanessa Hudgens), the sexy girl at the beauty salon next door hopes to put enough money together to move downtown; Nina (Ana Villafane), the pride of the neighborhood for a scholarship award to Stanford is returning to tell her parents she’s dropped out; Benny (J. Quinton Johnson) who works for Nina’s parents, dreams of being his own boss and getting closer to the boss’s daughter; and Abuela Claudia (Saundra Santiago), the matriarch of the close-knit community, “she’s not really my abuela (grandmother), but she practically raised me, this corner is her escuela (school),” pines for the Cuba of her childhood—when a way back to the island presents itself.
The best part of In the Heights though is the music—a flowing mashup of hip-hop, Latin rhythms and classic Broadway, it’s fun, vigorous and a startlingly fresh experience for musical theater.
The score, energetically conducted by a dozen members of the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra and led by Zachary Dietz, was at its best as a platform for dance. While ballads such as “Breathe” and “When the Sun Goes Down” are lovely and showcase the expressive voices of Villafane and Johnson, the show was most memorable for the eclectic multi-style piece “96,000” and the ensemble dance numbers like “The Club” in which Hudgens shines.
Another standout performance came from local actor Mateo Ferro, who made the most of his role as the teenage crackup Sonny.
Staging Broadway shows in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower space is often challenging, and the performers from In the Heights were awkwardly crammed together, but the tight set by Anna Louizos still worked. This show was high on exuberance and director-choreographer Stephanie Klemons had her cast on the move, salsa-shimmying and breakdance-popping across the stage, wonderfully backlit by Zachary Borovay with projections of the George Washington Bridge and Caribbean memories.
This was a short 5 day stop for In the Heights. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda attended the March 24 show, and no doubt took a walk down the red carpet lobby to check out the Opera House where his Hamilton will have a longer stay: June 12 – September 16.
In the Heights. Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes. Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed and choreographed by Stephanie Klemons. Cast: Blanca Camacho, Eden Espinosa, Mateo Ferro, Virgil Gadson, Vanessa Hudgens, J. Quinton Johnson, Rick Negron, Anthony Ramos, Eliseo Roman, Arianna Rosario, Saundra Santiago and Ana Villafane. Scenic design: Anna Louizos. Costume design: Andrea Lauer. Lighting design: Cory Pattak. Projection Design: Zachary Borovay . Sound design: Andrew Keister. Music director: Zachary Dietz. Production stage manager: Molly Meg Legal. Produced by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.