In The Heights

Lyrique Music Productions is running In The Heights through next weekend at the Columbia High School auditorium, and it should not be missed.  While not perfect, it is still an absolutely wonderful evening at the theatre, and you’ll leave with a smile on your face, a bounce in your step, and a song in your heart.

In the Heights is the first play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of current Hamilton fame, and it won him his first Tony Award.  It is a story about the importance of family and neighborhood, and it touches on the everyday life of struggling immigrants following their great American dreams.  The play revolves around a block in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, before it gentrified.  It is populated by a multi-racial mix of lower-middle-class people, struggling to get by in life.  There are the immigrant parents who are sacrificing everything so that their daughter can go to college.  There is the neighborhood beauty salon, where all the news is traded, being pushed out by developers.  There is the “mother figure” for the block, who doesn’t speak much English, but cares for, and is loved by, the entire neighborhood.  There is the young black man working hard to better himself, but who still can’t find acceptance.  There is the young woman who works hard, but without a positive credit history, who is just trying to find a landlord that will let her rent a place to live.  And there is the centerpiece of the show–the part Miranda wrote for himself, and played in the Broadway run–the owner of the neighborhood bodega, who knows exactly how everyone likes their coffee, and dreams of returning to his parent’s homeland.  The plot itself is a bit saccharine, with everything turning out a bit too neatly in the end, but it’s a feel-good show, and we love seeing these wonderful characters come out on top.  What really makes this show take off, however, is the music and dancing.  This is a very high-energy production, with music styles not traditional for Broadway, and it’s past due.  There are some ballad songs, but In The Heights,  includes salsa dancing, and plenty of rap lyrics.  You’ll be bouncing in your seats when the music is playing.

Is this LMP production perfect?  No, of course not, but the show is so fun, with such high energy and interesting characters and talented performances, that we are willing to forgive its flaws.  Luz Ladrillono’s direction is spot-on.  The action never stops, and she does a masterful job of both filling the stage with what seems like a cast of thousands, and also providing the soft, intimate moments often necessary for the characters.  She shows a skilled hand in helping the performers craft believable, touching characters, whom we come to care about.  The music direction, by Newt Johnson, is stellar.  Occasionally the demands of rap are a bit much for a performer’s abilities, but the singing in this show is generally remarkable, and there isn’t a bad voice in the group.  Additionally, Johnson’s orchestra (“band”, really) sounds note-perfect, and provides wonderful musical support for the show.  The choreography, by the team of Nikki Ahlf, Hope Keys, and Gabrielle Gonzalez, is high-energy, and in several different styles, all perfect for their numbers, and at times truly impressive.

This huge cast has a blast, and does a remarkable job of  bringing to life this small block of a big city.  Christopher Gunner, as the Manuel character “Usnavi” (pronounced “oos-NAH-vee”), running his bodega with dreams of returning to his motherland, has great comfort and relaxation onstage.  Sometimes his “rap” is a bit off, but overall he does a really, really nice job with this character, and I’m sure Manuel himself would be proud of him.  Aisha Richardson, as “Vanessa”, Usnavi’s love interest who just needs to find a place to live, has a wonderful singing voice, and in turns, shows great vulnerability and sexiness. Cameron DuVall, as Usnavi’s younger cousin, “Sonny”, is the least skilled dancer of the principals, but his charm and energy make this neighborhood jokester a fun addition to the cast, always good for some laughs and easing of tensions.  Christian Gunner, as “Abuela”, Usnavi’s  grandmother, and heart of the neighborhood, is stellar, giving us a beautiful peek into the life of a woman who has spent her entire life in a strange country, doing her best to share love to all she meets.  Joel Kreipe and Clair Johnson, as the immigrant couple, “Kevin” and “Camila”, running their own taxi service, are an incredible pair, bringing great reality to their struggles of providing for their daughter and paying the bills.  Kayla Braxton, as their daughter, “Nina”, does a great job showing the burden of being the one person on the block to escape and go to college…and failing.  Additionally, she has to fight to convince her parents to accept her boyfriend, who is NOT the right ethnicity for their liking.  Samuel L. Jackson II, as that love interest, “Benny”, doesn’t quite have the diction control necessary for the faster lyrics, but still manages to bring real heart to this character working hard for acceptance.  Basia Marotta, as the hair salon owner, “Daniela”, can really belt out a song, and probably does the best job with putting on an appropriate accent.  Sarah Bell Altonji, as the dim-witted “Carla”, is always fun to watch onstage, and plays this part perfectly.  Jonathan Smith, as “Graffiti Pete”, is probably the most talented dancer of the featured characters, and does a wonderful job portraying the heart-of-gold neighborhood “tagger”.  The rest of the cast supports the action admirably.  There is a clear distinction in dance talent between the featured dancers and the rest of the ensemble, but the choreography does a nice job of showing everyone off to the best of their abilities, and they all sound wonderful in the choral singing numbers.

Lynn Broad, as Technical Director, should be proud.  All the technical elements work very well to seamlessly support the action, without distracting from it.  The set is impressive, with two full-height, two-story pieces.  While those second levels weren’t used as much as they could have been, they are impressive to behold, and add nicely to painting the picture.  The center set piece is a bit disappointing, compared to the pieces on stage left and right, but it at least allows the lighting effects on the backdrop to be clearly visible.  The lighting is very good throughout, with nice use of specials to draw the attention, without generally being too obvious.  The sound had the usual problem of occasionally not balancing between lead vocals versus supporting vocals or orchestra, but those times are rare.  The costumes, by Beth Keys, Meredith Sledd, and Gay Broad, are remarkable.  While this isn’t a “period piece”, they still did a very nice job of selecting the right costumes for each character and scene, for a VERY large cast.

Bottom line, while there are flaws here and there, this show should not be missed.  It is a wonderful feel-good play, with impressive dancing and singing, and great characters that we grow to love.  Performances run Wednesday through Saturday this coming weekend, at the Columbia High School auditorium.  Ticket information and show times can be found at this link.

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  1. Maria Elena says:

    The review is very true on so many points but it is obvious the reviewer didn’t see the original show on Broadway or he wouldn’t have made some of the comments.
    I saw the show with the original cast on Broadway and the set was set up the same way as LMP’s set with the sparse looking bridge in the middle.
    Sonny’s character is for comedic relief and he is not a dancer. In the original show if he danced he did so with the quirkiness and comedy that defined his character.
    The original Benny’s rap on Broadway wasn’t as crisp as Lin Manual Miranda’s and was more in a hip hop style and a little muddled. Probably intentional to show Benny isn’t from Washington Heights and therefore different.
    As a musician and singer I felt the rap from the lead character was rhythmically on point. He also has the same flavor and charm of Lin Manuel Miranda.
    If the reviewer looked in the wings he would find that Newt Johnson was leading an orchestra of some the finest musicians in the southeast, definitely not a “band.”
    Lastly Abuela is grandmother not aunt in Spanish. She was the matriarch of the entire community.


  2. Thank you for your feedback.

    It is correct that I did not see the Broadway production, but I don’t think that would have changed any of my comments. I would have said the same things about the production there, if I saw this there.

    My apologies if the “band” comment came across negatively, as it was not meant that way. I thought I made it clear that I thought the music was sensational. I didn’t realize there was anything derogatory about being a “band musician”. Regardless, the parenthetical aside was merely meant to distinguish this collection of musicians from what we usually get in a theatre “orchestra”–strings, woodwinds, etc. I have the utmost love and respect for our folks in the pit, and did not mean an iota of negativity with that aside. I met my wife, when she was playing in the pit for a musical, after all.

    Thank you for the correction on my non-existent Spanish. I will make that adjustment on the relationship to Usnavi and Sonny.

    Overall, I would ask you to consider that there has hardly ever been a theatrical production that was perfect. This “In the Heights” production is truly phenomenal, especially for “community theatre. I believe I succeeded in writing a very complimentary review, and I hope the production sells out the remainder of its run. But regardless of how much I enjoy a show, I am still going to point out things that could have been better, even when they are relatively small things, like with this show.

    Again, thank you for your feedback!


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