In the Heights
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Musical Theatre West
Through November 5
Lin-Manuel Miranda, that contemporary titan of musical theater, premiered his first show off-Broadway in 2007. In the ten intervening years, Miranda’s star rose: In the Heights won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008, and Miranda went on to write songs for Moana and create an obscure little musical you might have heard of called Hamilton.
It’s often said that everyone has one a great deeply personal story to tell — but a true artist is someone who can tell great stories that aren’t autobiographical. While Hamilton proved that Miranda can do just that, In the Heights, inspired directly by his own life, still remains a delightful story.
Almost like a sitcom, the show follows a few characters over the span of three days: July 3rd, 4th, and 5th. The narrator, Usnavi (Perry Young), a bodega owner in Washington Heights, introduces the audience to his neighborhood and the most important figures in his life: Vanessa (Teresa Castillo), the girl he’s been crushing on for years; Nina (Alyssa Gomez), an old friend who’s just returned home from her freshman year at college; Benny (Carleton Bluford), a good friend who works for Nina’s family; Sonny (Andrew Perez), Usnavi’s impish younger cousin; and Abuela Claudia (Candida Celaya), a mother-like figure to everyone in the neighborhood.
When Usnavi learns that his bodega sold a winning lottery ticket, everyone in the neighborhood gets excited at what the prospect of those winnings could mean. It’s enough money to change anyone’s life.
In the Heights is the kind of show that can skate by on charm alone, and this production does just that. Young, an alum of the Broadway production’s second national tour, is winning in the lead role, effortlessly shepherding the audience through each moment in the show. There’s an unaffected sense of ease to his performance, which jibes well with the tone of the musical as a whole. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, many of whom seem under-rehearsed in the unsung moments of dialogue.
Director Benny Perez who, like Young, is an alum of the same national tour, seems to be mounting a pretty faithful recreation of that production. (Indeed, there’s no set designer credited in Long Beach, but the set looks like it might be the same one Anna Louizos designed for the Broadway production & subsequent national tours.) Hector Guerrero’s choreography also hearkens back to Andy Blankenbuehler’s work on the original. Ten years later, it seems like the time is ripe for some fresh takes on the material, but given the extraordinary legacy of its creator, it is understandable that audiences who missed In the Heights the first time around might want to see a version that’s as close to the show Miranda, Thomas Kail, and Blankenbuehler created as possible.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this production is how white the ensemble is. There have been plenty of instances where regional theaters have cast white actors in the principal roles, and were rightly called out for doing so. It’s strange to see so many non-Hispanic people in a show that decries the gentrifying forces of “rich folks and hipsters” in Washington Heights, a community that prides itself on being home to a vibrant Latino population. Maybe it’s an intentional statement on gentrification, but it feels disingenuous in a story which so beautifully celebrates the Hispanic-American experience.
Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton, Long Beach; Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; through Nov. 5. Musical.org. Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.