In the Heights – Review by Geary Danihy

Playhouse on Park has never shied away from tackling the “Big” musicals, and by and large the creative team of Tracy Flater, Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller has been successful. This time around, they’ve opted to produce Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning In the Heights, and I’m happy to report that it is a rousing success, as was evident by the response of the packed house on opening night. From casting to direction and choreography, Playhouse’s production captures the zest, sass and underlying message – a message that seems to have been forgotten in this age of cries for walls being built and families being separated – that desperately needs to be delivered.

Set in one block of Washington Heights in Manhattan, and covering a span of only several days leading up to the Fourth of July holiday (kudos to Aaron Hochheiser for the fireworks lighting effects), the book by Quiara Allegra Hughes deals with the lives of some of the area’s residents, which means that it deals with dreams (some apparently dashed, others deferred), desires and the fears of people who have, many first-generation Hispanics, arrived on these shores to create new lives. This home-grown musical, originally written by Miranda while he was attending Wesleyan University and then, after rewrites, produced at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, went on to enjoy over 1,000 performances on Broadway, winning three Drama Desk awards and four Tony awards.

The show, backed by nine musicians, is essentially narrated by Usnavi (Niko Touros), whose parents named him after a ship they saw as they came to this country (it was a U. S. Navy ship). In the opening number, “In the Heights,” he introduces the audience to many of the pivotal characters. There’s Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme), an artist with a spray can, Abuela Claudia (Amy Jo Phillips), a matriarchal figure, and Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Usnavi’s somewhat lazy cousin who helps him run the bodega. Then there’s Daniela (Sandra Marante) and Carla (Paige Buade), who run a beauty salon, and their assistant, Vanessa (Sophie Introna), and finally Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario, who own a car service, and their employee, Benny (Leyland Patrick), and the “Piragua Guy” (Willie Marte), a push-cart salesman of frozen ice treats.

Into this multi-ethnic community arrives Nina (Analise Rios), Kevin and Camila’s daughter. She is the one who has “gotten out,” who has been an “A student” and has been studying at Stanford University in California. Alas, she has left school, for the burden of holding down two jobs while attending classes has affected her grades and she is, for the moment, broken-spirited.

Obviously, in such a tight-knit community there are multiple relationships, and many of the musical numbers (the show is essentially a sung-through musical) detail and develop these relationships via musical styles that embrace Rap, Salsa and standard ballads. Along the way, many of these actors shine brilliantly, perhaps none more than Pope, who in the second act’s “Enough” simply stuns the audience with her intensity. It’s a theatrical moment you will long remember after the lights go down and evokes the “And I Am Telling You” number from Dreamgirls.

Then there’s Marante, who gets the eleven o’clock number slot with “Carnaval Del Barrio” – her voice soars. And there’s Introna in an amazing debut performance (she just graduated from Rider University in December) as she creates an engaging blend of sass, style and sensuality. As the two star-crossed lovers, Nina and Benny follow the arc of Romeo and Juliet (without the tragedy), leading to a touching balcony scene that appears to be about learning Spanish but is really about the fight for acceptance (and against prejudice)

There’s really not a false note, so to speak, in the entire production. One of the things that is so engaging about this production is the proximity of the audience – which means that the heat and intensity generated by the cast (with much credit going to Zoller’s choreography and those in the ensemble) can’t help but waft over and embrace the entire house. Kudos must also go to set designer Emily Nichols who manages, given the relatively restricted thrust-stage venue, to create distinct areas for the action to unfold. There’s never really any doubt as to “where you are.”

For those not familiar with the plot, such as it is, of In the Heights, their first viewing may be spent, partially, in grasping who everyone is and their relationships to each other. This may distract a bit from attending to the excellent, nuanced performances, so, even though it may be a tough ticket, I’d recommend a second viewing, one in which you can sit back, comfortable in knowing who is whom, and just revel in this outstanding production that will make your blood flow just a bit faster.

In the Heights runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

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