Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

In the Heights
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts / Teatro del Pueblo
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Sabra Falling, Man of La Mancha, and The Nether


Lauren Villegas and Cast
Photo by Rich Ryan
Abuela Claudia, a character in In the Heights, the intelligent, tuneful, and gloriously joyful musical currently in a co-production by Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and Teatro del Pueblo, illustrates in song the rewards of her credo: "Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)." The story of the show's creation is a case study in patience and faith. In 1999, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a sophomore at Wesleyan University, began work on a musical about the place where he grew up, Washington Heights, a highly urban neighborhood north of Harlem in Manhattan. After the show, In the Heights, was performed by Wesleyan's student theater group, three students and a recent alum, Thomas Kail, asked its young creator to expand it with the goal of playing on Broadway. Talk about big dreams!

Six years later, Miranda's musical staged by the prestigious National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neil Theater Center, with Kail as its director. Along the way, emerging playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes had joined the team as In the Heights' bookwriter. Two years after that came an Off-Broadway production that drew praise and catapulted the show to Broadway, where it won four 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Original Score, ran for three years, made back its investment in 10 months (a huge feat, especially for a show lacking a single name star), and saw its cast recording win the 2009 Grammy award as Best Musical Show Album.

In the Heights creates a microcosm of an entire neighborhood through four groups of its denizens. At the center is Usnavi, born to Dominican immigrants who, with his teenage cousin Sonny, runs a small bodega-corner grocery, sundry and coffee shop. Down the block is a hair salon run by tough-talking Daniela and her staff: ditzy, Jesus-loving Carla and Vanessa, who is determined to leave the Heights and her dysfunctional family for a more genteel neighborhood. Usnavi dangles at the end of Vanessa's long string of male admirers, paralyzed by his shyness. Across the street is the cab company owned by the Rosarios. They are struggling to keep the doors open, especially with the burden of helping their high-achieving daughter Nina get through college. Their employee, Benny, counts on them for his livelihood—and also counts on finding a path to Nina's heart. Finally, we have Abuela Claudia, who left Cuba with her mother in the 1940s, landing in the Heights. Claudia is honorary abuela (grandmother) to everyone on the block, and she raised Usnavi after his parents left him an orphan.

The story opens on a hot summer day and ends just two days later. A mix of songs kick-start the plot, what I would have called "story starters" when I taught elementary school. Nina, who has returned from Stanford after her first year away, attempts to just "Breathe" as she bears the shame of losing her college scholarship. As Benny works the cab company radio ("Benny's Dispatch"), he reveals his feelings for Nina. When Nina does tell her parents about the scholarship, her father is struck low, feeling "Inútil (Useless)" by his ability to help his family. Increased rent forces Daniela to move her salon to the Bronx, while Vanessa negotiates for a downtown studio apartment, declaring "It Won't Be Long Now." This means Usnavi will soon be out of time to make his move toward her. Finally, Usnavi learns that he sold a winning lottery ticket to one of his customers—but who? Someone's life is about to change to the tune of "$96,000."

Each of the main characters bears the ring of truth. Miranda knows these people intimately and the cast in this production inhabit them fully. Justin Gregory Lopez, new to Twin Cities stages, must carry the show as Usnavi. He does. He projects kindness and generosity, along with self-doubt and uncertainty, and delivers the dense rap lyrics Miranda wrote for himself with aplomb. He serves as a musical ringmaster for two numbers that draw in the entire community, the opening title song and "$96,000", and soars with newly won certitude in the finale. Aline Mayagoitia as Nina, and Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny, also both new to our stages, convincingly discover the love taking hold of them. Both actors convey elation, anger and sorrow with conviction. Theirs duets, "When You're Home," "Sunrise," and "When the Sun Goes Down," offer warmly beautiful harmonies, while Mayagoitia delivers a depth of feelings in both "Breathe," and the heartbreaking "Everything I Know."

Val Nuccio is persuasively steamy as Vanessa, with dance moves to match. Her fellow hair stylists, Lauren Villegas as Daniela and Emily Madigan as Carla, provide sass and some of the show's funnier moments. Fernando Collado is adorable as Sonny, a world-wise kid whose sensitive heart is a just a whisper beneath his feigned bravado. Debra Corona is Abuela Claudia, strong in spite of her advanced years and declining health, buoyed both by the love of her neighbors and her rich trove of memories. Local mainstays Pedro R. Bayón and Lara Trujillo, as Kevin and Camila Rosario, convey the wear and tear of a long-married couple who have been through tough times, and will make it through more. Each has a feature number—Bayón's "Inútil (Useless)" and Trujillo's "Enough", that brings order back to her faltering family with an iron hand—in which they shine.

Storyline and endearing characters aside, In the Heights is a fabulous dance musical, with four breathlessly staged full company dance numbers and several smaller dance routines to support other musical scenes. The superb choreography takes full advantage of the range of urban and Latin musical styles in Miranda's score, and the dancers are indefatigable. Choreography and director credits are both shared by Ordway Producing Artistic Director James A. Rocco and Alberto Justiniano, founder and Artistic Director of Teatro del Pueblo. Each gentleman brings the strengths of their respective organizations to the occasion, respecting the conventions of both musical theater and community. The show constantly moves, attending to ambient ensemble members strolling through scenes, giving the stage the essence of true life.

A nine-piece orchestra, led by musical director Eugenio A. Vargas, perform the score with élan, their spirit typified by their turn as musical partner to Abuela Claudia's resurrected memories of her life in Havana and arrival in New York, "Paciencia y Fe."

The set, designed by Anna Louizos, bears strong resemblance to the set used in the Broadway touring production that passed through about seven years ago, and works fine for this production. The George Washington Bridge looms behind and towers over the street-scape, a signature image for the neighborhood. Trevor Bowen's costumes capture the street life of this community, distinguishing the variety of people who cross paths every day. Jesse Cogswell's lighting affirms the coming and going of daylight over the show's 48 hours, casting shadows that focus on feelings as well as action, and join with Andy Horka's sound design to close the first act with a display of Independence Day fireworks.

Washington Heights, like many urban neighborhoods, hosted a parade of arriving ethnic groups over the course of a century: Irish, Greeks, German Jews, and Soviet era Russians. By the 1980s it had become a largely Hispanic, and particularly Dominican, community. In that decade, Washington Heights was also one of New York City's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, awash with gang violence and drug dealers. That was the time-frame of Lin-Manuel Miranda's childhood and he includes elements of crime, with shops looted during a power black-out, but those feelings are overshadowed by his great affection for the place and its people.

In the Heights' story is not built upon great moments, but on the simple gains and losses common to life. Its gift is in capturing the soul of these moments and lifting them from the mundane to the exceptional. The Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo have wrapped that gift beautifully, creating a wonderful package for the eyes, ears and heart.

In the Heights continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through September 24, 2017. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $126.50 - $37.00, Standing Room: $34.00. For tickets call 651-224-4222 or go to Ordway.org.

Book: Quiara Alegría Hudes; Music and Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda; Directors and Choreographers: Alberto Justiniano and James A Rocco; Musical Director: Eugenio A. Vargas; Scenic Design: Anna Louizos; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Costume Coordinator: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Design: Jesse Cogswell; Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Rick Polenek; Casting: Reid Harmsen; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Production Stage Manager: Sharon Bach; Associate Director: Andrew Bourgoin.

Cast: Pedro R. Bayón (Kevin), Brian Bose (Graffiti Pete), Debra Cardona (Abuela Claudia), Fernando Collado (Sonny), Justin Gregory Lopez (Usnavi), Emily Madigan (Carla), Aline Mayagoitia (Nina), Val Nuccio (Vanessa), Jen Santoro Rotty (Bolero Singer), Lara Trujillo (Camila), Adan Varela (Piragua Guy), Lauren Villegas (Daniela), Stephen Scott Wormley (Benny),

Ensemble: Courtney Arango, Rush Benson, Alexander Gil Cruz, Renee Guittar, Patrick Charles Jeffrey, Abby Magalee, Giselle Mejia, Zander Morales, Jorge Quintero, J.L. Rey, Jen Santoro Rotty, Rudolph Searles III, Maureen Sherman-Mendez, Adan Varela.


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