Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In The Heights follows the residents of Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic neighborhood at the top of Manhattan. The story focuses on Usnavi, who runs the local bodega selling coffee and snacks with his younger cousin Sonny. A colorful cast of characters bring a mix of cultures, dreams, and life situations together, all culminating with in a lottery win, a blackout, and big decisions about their next steps in life.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, is how many in the theater world were introduced to songwriter/performer wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like Hamilton, Miranda's score for In The Heights includes a mix of musical styles including rap, hip-hop, various Latin styles, R&B, and traditional musical theater numbers. Also present are Miranda's witty lyrics, providing both insight and humor, and capturing modern, urban vernacular. Anyone familiar with Hamilton will recognize Miranda's writing in this musical as well. Among the dynamic songs in the show are the wonderful titular opening number, the soaring "When You're Home" (a duet for Benny and Nina), and "96,000", a song layered with multiple musical motifs as the leading characters dream of what they'd do if they won the lottery.
Where In The Heights falters in comparison with Hamilton is the story. The book by Quiara Alegría Hudes is interesting, hopeful, and genuine, and contains solid comedy, romance and pathos. However, it's also fairly simplistic, presenting a "slice of life" of these everyday characters. This simplicity is part of the charm, but if you compare it to the enormous scale and the life and death story of building a nation that Hamilton covers, the intrigue and stakes can't compete.
Director May Adrales provides a keen understanding of the material, an appreciated attention to detail, and a tender touch apt to the tone of the piece. Her staging of "Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)" is especially praiseworthy. The choreography by William Carlos Angulo is reminiscent of Cincinnati native Andy Blankenbuehler's original dances, but are never copies, and capture the energy and flavor of the music and setting. The direction and dances both use the thrust stage configuration of the theater well to create an intimate presentation of the show. Musical director Dan Kazemi leads a great sounding seven-piece orchestra which can be seen on the second level of the set.
The authentic-looking set design by Tim Mackabee is a tight fit in the Marx Theatre, but contains all of the necessary elements and includes a useful second level. The costumes by David Israel Reynoso are fun and apt, and Robert J. Aguilar's lighting includes some well-rendered effects.
The outstanding cast is capably led by Ryan Alvarado as Usnavi. He captures the romantically awkward and neighborhood-loving attitude of the character with his acting, and provides a solid foundation for the show overall. As Nina, Sophia Macías is a revelation, supplying chill-inducing vocals and a rich portrayal of the character. Her rendition of "Breathe" is certainly one of the highlights of the show. David Kaverman puts his sweet and smooth singing talents to wonderful use as Benny. As Vanessa, Stephanie Gomérez is very talented, and looks and acts the part well, but she is not a great fit vocally for the role.
Yassmin Alers (Abuela Claudia), Tony Chiroldes (Kevin), and Karmine Alers (Camila) portray the older characters magnificently, and provide impassioned, fierce delivery of some of the more serious songs in the show. The roles played by Nicolas Garza (Sonny), Alyssa V. Gomez (Carla), and Lillian Castillo (Daniela) lean toward the comedic (though they deliver on the touching moments too), and they all garner lots of laughs in addition to providing stunning vocals. The ensemble members execute the choreography with high-octane energy and skill and are to be commended for their hard work throughout.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production of In The Heights represents an abundance of riches. Whether or not you have tickets for Hamilton in the coming months, don't miss the opportunity to see this show. The musical boasts an excellent score and a solid story, and this mounting contains an excellent cast.
In The Heights, through February 17, 2019, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt Adams Circle, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.