Monday, September 18, 2017

MUST SEE: In The Heights at the Ordway

What was Lin-Manuel Miranda up to prior to Hamilton


Photo courtesy of the Ordway

If you don't know the answer to that question, you could be forgiven. Hamilton has become such a ticket sales juggernaut that its reputation has eclipsed a host of other excellent new musicals of the last 10 - 15 years; which is a shame, because there are a lot of excellent pieces out there that deserve a little more love.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

In The Heights, Miranda's first musical (and a Best Original Score winner at the Tony Awards in 2008), is one such piece. Detailing the story of a vibrant, richly drawn neighborhood in the Washington Heights area of New York City, In The Heights is a clear precursor to Hamilton (and Miranda's success) and a testament to the value of uplifting new artists who are reinventing the definition of Broadway and what "belongs" on stage.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

In The Heights follows Usnavi, a bodega owner, as he observes the neighborhood he's grown up in all his life. Raised by his "Abuela" Claudia (an elderly Cuban woman who took him in after his parents died), Usnavi cares for his cousin Sonny and pines after the beautiful Vanessa, a woman who has dreamed all her life of leaving the Heights but is anchored by her dysfunctional mother. Vanessa works for Daniela, a vivaciously colorful salon owner who also hired Carla. Living next door is Nina, who has recently left Stanford after a difficult year of being unable to afford tuition. Nina lives with her parents Kevin and Camilla Rosario, who have built up a local limousine taxi business and are devastated to learn of their daughter's plans to stay at home. Nina falls in love with Benny, the dispatch worker in her parent's business, and together they plan for the future and change her parents' minds about the plans for Nina's life.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Got all that? Good, because that is essentially the show. There are some major plot lines - such as Abuela Claudia winning a $96,000 lottery ticket that creates a small crisis in Usnavi and Sonny's future plans, and a city-wide blackout that wreaks havoc in the neighborhood left without power - but really, at it's heart In The Heights is a story about relationships. Every person in this show has a purpose and a meaning to another. There are not really true extras or a chorus - we come to know (and love) everyone in these Heights, right down to the frozen ice vendor walking down the street. It's a gorgeously drawn, complex, heartbreaking, inspiring melee, and I can't say enough about how captivating this world is.

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Part of that is due to the profoundly beautiful music, which features Miranda's trademark hip-hop style mixed with an encyclopedic melange of sounds from every Latin American influence imaginable. We hear salsa, bachata, tango, mambo, merengue, rumba, samba, perrero, and the sounds of giants such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Selena, Thalia, Tito Puente, and so much more. The score explodes with life and the interwoven sounds of the islands, and it belies the surprisingly small pit orchestra. Hats off to this group (expertly led by conductor Eugenio A. Vargas), who really made this production shine through vivacious numbers like "96,000," "Paciencia y Fe," and "No Me Diga."

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

The mostly locally-grown cast is also excellent and a testament to the power of working with local arts organizations to help grow and sustain talent right here in the Twin Cities. Justin Gregory Lopez absolutely captures Miranda's spirit as Usnavi, with a lyrical delivery, heartwarming smile and so, so much heart. Debra Cardona is magical as Abuela Claudia, lending a gravitas and serving as the beating heart of the show; her exit in Act II had the audience in tears. Emily Madigan and Lauren Villegas are side-splittingly hilarious as salon ladies Carla and Daniela, respectively, and their fabulous performance of "Carnaval del Barrio" had everyone dancing in their seats. Pedro Bayon and Lara Trujillo are perfectly paired as Kevin and Camila Rosario. Fernando Collado is winning as Usnavi's young cousin Sonny and Val Nuccio struts her stuff as Vanessa. My personal favorites were Aline Mayagoitia as Nina and Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny; their chemistry was off the charts and their voices beautifully interwove in duets such as "Sunrise" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Mayagoitia also had the standout song of the show in her portion of "Alabanza," a gorgeous dirge that has lingered in my head for days.

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The set and costumes for this show are colorful and evocative, another perfect blend of the decidedly international flavor of Washington Heights. Dingy tenement buildings are adorned with colorful produce, vibrant flags and clear love and respect by those who reside in them. Clothing is colorful and in constant motion, with flowing skirts and interesting shapes exploding with every hue of the rainbow. There's not a lot of props to speak of - the production wisely focuses instead on the lavish choreography from Alexander Gil Cruz, which covers every dance style imaginable and is breathlessly executed.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

If you can't tell by now, In The Heights had me captivated from the first 30 seconds. I make it a policy not to research new-to-me shows before I see them, as I believe any story should be clear without needing an encyclopedic amount of research to understand it before I even sit down. The world of In The Heights is so clearly drawn, so relevant to our times, and so extraordinary in its ordinariness that I couldn't stop engaging, even long after the last curtain fell. When is the last time that you heard a song about student loans and affording college on stage? Or saw people dream over winning not a million or billion dollars, but $96,000, just enough to comfortably catch them up on their bills? When is the last time you saw new immigrants really celebrating their lives in America, but not without simultaneously explicitly discussing the difficulties they've faced since arriving - gentrification, police violence, poverty, and more?

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Watching the Ordway's main stage blossom into a radiant bouquet of melanin was one of my favorite theater memories there to-date, and I hope that In The Heights marks a turning point in terms of doing more contemporary, diverse stories (utilizing locally nurtured talent). I would happily revisit this production again and again, and I can confidently state that you will get a definite bang for your ticket dollars. Please fill this theater to capacity every night - let's have more In The Heights in our futures! In The Heights runs at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through September 24; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.