At the start of IN THE HEIGHTS, now in its locally produced premiere at Beck Center, Usnavi chases away Graffiti Pete, a graffiti artist, from in front of his Washington Heights “bodega” (Spanish for a small neighbor grocery store). As the young owner raps, the lyrics and music set the mood for what is a three-day visit to the largely Hispanic/Latino neighborhood on the brink of change. It’s a place where families bond, neighborhood ties are strong, and the George Washington Bridge casts its shadow across the hopes and dreams of the residents.
Nina, the bright, precocious daughter of the owner of a car service, has just returned from her Freshman year at Stanford. The scholarship student has secrets. She left Stanford because in spite of a scholarship and meager help from her family, the work load she needed in order to pay for books and other expenses, had taken away time from her studies and she flunked out. Matters are not helped by her relationship with Benny, a non-Latino who works for her father.
A winning lottery ticket, a buy-out offer for the car service, the death of the neighborhood’s Abuela (grandmother), and a power outage affect Washington Heights, resulting in the residents not only finding out about themselves, but the place they call home.
IN THE HEIGHTS, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, opened on Broadway in March, 2008 to mixed reviews. In spite of the press, it went on to get thirteen Academy Award nominations and won in four categories, including Best Musical.
The Beck production, mostly populated by the much revered Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program’s present and past students, and directed by multi-award winning Victoria Bussert, explodes with enthusiasm. It is exciting, flashy, tender, and emotional. Miranda’s rap, steamy ballads, and Latin-toned music makes it hard to sit and not want to dance and clap in time to the ever pounding beat.
The dynamics of the band, which was positive, was also problematic. Coupled with a weak sound system, the music often overshadows the singers and the hip-hop and the Spanish-infused lyrics are hard to hear. While the audience gets the general feeling, comments at intermission and after the show, indicated that the actual words were lost.
Greg Daniels’ choreography had an appropriate Latino flavor and fit the mood and tone of the music. “Carnaval del Barrio” was a dynamic production number.
Jordan Janota’s set had the right feel, aided by the bright lights as designed by Jeff Herrmann, it created a cramped and hot-humid atmosphere.
The cast was excellent.
Jessie Cope Miller was convincing as the tender-hearted Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s “grandmother.” Her well sung “Paciencia y Fe: (“Patience and Faith”) was one of the production’s emotional highlights.
Livvy Marcus created in Nina a clear picture of a young lady conflicted, frustrated and loyal. She carries the burden of being the “one who made it out,” with nice sensitivity. Her “When You’re Home,” sung with Malik Victorian (who developed a nicely textured Benny) was a fine duet as was their “When the Sun Goes Down.”
Michael Canada was a dynamic as the spontaneous Sonny. He has wonderful sense of comic timing.
Isabel Plana was delightful as Daniela the gossip queen owner of the beauty salon next door to Usnavi’s bodega.
Ellis C. Dawson III created Usnavi, who was named after one of the first sights his parents saw then they arrived in America: a U.S. Navy ship, into an authentic person. Unfortunately, some of his rapping was muted by slack articulation.
The beautiful Christiana Perrault sang, acted, and danced well as Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, who wants to escape the neighborhood by moving into an apartment downtown, but can’t afford it until a special person co-signs for her.
Jared Leal authentically develops Kevin, into a father and husband, with dreams for his family. His interpretation of “Atencion” was very effective as was “Inutil.” He was nicely balanced by Kelsey Baehrens as Camila, Nina’s mother.
Warren Egypt Franklin (Graffiti Pete) displayed strong dancing skills.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The multi-Tony winning IN THE HEIGHTS gets an exciting and well-developed production through creative direction by Victoria Bussert and fine acting, singing and dancing by a cast mainly composed of Baldwin Wallace University past and present students. If you like Latino music enfolded into a nicely developed story, this should be on your “go to” list.
IN THE HEIGHTS is scheduled to run through February 12, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Next at Beck: The regional premiere of SHINING CITY, Conor McPherson’s 2006 Tony Award winning play about a guilt ridden man who reaches out to his therapist after seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife.