“In the Heights” at Playhouse on Park Well Worth Seeing

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In The Heights-85 (1)_edited
Photo by Kurt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 In the Height by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) made Broadway sit up and take notice.

Now Playhouse on Park is producing this breakthrough show through July 29. Go see it!

Miranda has acquired more awards quicker than almost any composer/lyricist – and he’s a talented performer as well: the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, multiple Tony Awards AND a MacArthur Foundation Grant (often referred to as the Genius Award).

In case you don’t know, the “Heights” referred to in the title are NYC’s Washington Heights, the area of Manhattan (north of Harlem) that has become well known for a large Dominican population.

Like many such neighborhoods, gentrification is creeping in, displacing the longtime residents.

The musical introduces us to just such a block. The hair salon is moving to the Bronx due to rising rents; the car service is getting offers from real estate people to sell out so that gentrification can occur. The bodega is hanging on. But they are a community that knows each other and takes care of each other.

We meet a group of hard-working people. Usnavi who seems almost like the “mayor” of the block, owns the bodega that employs his cousin; both are young. His Abuela Claudia (grandmother) is there to lend support. The girl he wants to court, Vanessa, dreams of moving into her own apartment downtown. She works in Daniela’s salon along with Carla. The Rosario family owns the car service; Nina, their daughter had been given a scholarship to Stanford, but as she finally admits when she returns after the spring semester, there have been difficulties. Despite scholarships the cost of books and incidentals caused her to work two jobs, fall behind on her course work and ultimately drop out. She hasn’t found the courage to tell her proud parents.

Miranda created a unique musical style which he carried over into Hamilton; it is a mixture of rap and more typical ballads, though you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes.

In the Heights is a complex musical for smaller theaters. Not only does it have a relatively large cast, but it requires careful casting or the theater may be criticized. Only one character in the work is not from a Dominican background and that character (Benny) is African-American. It is clear that many in this cast are from Hispanic backgrounds.

Scenic designer Emily Nichols has done a fine job in recreating the street scene that encompasses the work: the bodega, car service office, the stoop in front of Abuela Claudia’s house and more.

The show opens with the rousing “In the Heights” which sets both the location and the mood. But it is also this number which reveals one of the problems in this production: the sound design/system. It wasn’t too loud, which can often be the case. Instead, it sounded blurry; the words were difficult to understand. In a show where rap is a major element and conveys a great deal of information, this is a problem. It was particularly evident in group numbers but even in individual songs it was present. Many audience members were talking about not being able to hear at intermission, despite the small theater size: it wasn’t that so much as not being able to hear the sounds but to understand what was being said or sung.

Niko Touros, a relative newcomer, is excellent as Usnavi our hero and narrator. He brings confidence and assurance to the role.  Also excellent were Sophia Introna as Vanessa, Amy Jo Phillips as Abuela Claudia and JL Rey and Stephanie Pope as Kevin and Camila Rosario. While Analise Rios sang beautifully as Nina, she never projected enough of her feelings of failure and despair.

In fact, often it seemed too much like the cast was “acting” rather than inhabiting the characters.

Sean Harris’ direction needed a little more zip; at times the show dragged with the first act 95 minutes and feeling longer. Darlene Zoller made good use of the stage with the choreography which the cast performed well.

If you have never seen In the Heights, this production is well worth seeing. It is also a show that we will study to see the early stages of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s development as a theater artist.

For tickets visit Playhouse on Park or call 860-523-5900.

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