By Pat Launer
“In the Heights” was always a good show. But since the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sophomore effort (a little thing called “Hamilton”), and since the DACA and deportation crisis is escalating, the musical has taken on increased importance and urgency.
The excellent Moonlight Stage production is expertly directed (by James Vásquez) and choreographed (by Carlos Mendoza). Their work emphasizes character definition and relationships, which makes the piece more moving and touching. And of course, Miranda being Miranda, it’s funny.
Vásquez has assembled an outstanding, mostly Latino cast. The singing is especially strong, and the dancing, too — which ranges from high-energy hip hop to salsa and break-dancing.
Elan McMahon conducts a robust 13-piece band (and plays keyboards as well)
It took a while to warm up to William Cooper Howell’s Usnavi, the fulcrum of the close-knit but crumbling Latin American melting pot of Washington Heights, in the northern end of Manhattan. His opening rap wasn’t as fast or syncopated as it could have been, but his pace and timing improved significantly over the course of the show. While he underplayed the humor of the character, he certainly captured the heart, and really made us care about Usnavi’s life, his social ineptitude, and his strong desire to keep his vibrant family-like community together.
Nina (Caitlyn Calfas), the bright local star in The Heights, was the first to make a getaway — to Stanford University, though that hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Calfas has a powerful emotional and vocal presence, though she tends to become shrill when belting in her upper register.
Most of the humor in the piece, set on a hot July 4 weekend in 2008, is carried by Jonathan Arana as the Piragua Guy (purveyor of Latino shaved ice) and Nicholas Alexander, as Usnavi’s crafty go-getter cousin, Sonny, who’s always pushing his older cuz toward the girl of his dreams, Vanessa (attractive, forthright Michelle Cabinian). The three hair stylists from the local salon (Amber-Sky Skipps, Marlene Montes and Nadia Guevara) are amusing in their tuneful gossip-fest, “No Me Diga.”
Samara Otero is compelling as Abuela Claudia, who’s nobody’s grandma, but also Everybody’s. As Nina’s father, Kevin, and boyfriend, Benny, Rudy Martinez and Carleton Bluford (respectively) reveal the conflicts and ambivalences within this community. Though he’s grown up in the neighborhood and worked for Kevin for years, Kevin still considers Benny an outsider, since he’s not Latino. And certainly not right for Nina (Nina thinks otherwise). Martinez is heartbreaking in his father’s lament, “Inútil” (‘Useless’), about being unable to scrape up the money to support his daughter’s education.
Everyone in this neighborhood has hopes, dreams, and a strong sense of home — both the neighborhood “family” they’ve created, and the country they or their parents originally came from.
The energy and enthusiasm are high in this production. There’s a vibrancy to the score (music and lyrics by Miranda) and the book (by Quiara Alegría Hudes).
The scenery (originally designed by three-time Tony nominee Anna Louizos) is strongly suggestive of the cramped quarters; the wonderful George Washington Bridge in the background which, when lit (by Jean-Yves Tessier) looks positively three-dimensional. The sound (Jim Zadai) is crisp and the costumes (Renetta Lloyd), wigs (Peter Herman) and makeup (Gabe Nunez) are spot-on for the period.
When the musical premiered on Broadway in 2008, it won four well-deserved Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. (It was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; though it didn’t win, Miranda snagged the Pulitzer seven years later, for “Hamilton”).
“In the Heights” broke new ground in musical theater, showing that hip hop had a place on the Great White Way. And it’s a delightful stretch for Moonlight, too.
“Alabanza” (praise) is due all around, for this exhilarating end to a successful 37th Moonlight season.
NOTE: As an extra bonus for Lin-Manuel Miranda fans (who are legion), Moonlight is presenting a one-night-only “Hamilton” singalong (Tuesday, Sept. 19, affectionately dubbed, when it’s been presented around the country, “Hamiltunes: An American Singalong.” A pre-taped orchestral background is provided, and all the (fast-paced) lyrics will be projected on a screen. Admission is free, but the event is already sold out. You can try your luck on the waiting list. Call 760-724-2110
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- “In The Heights” runs through Sept. 30 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista
- Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. (gates open for picnicking at 6:30 p.m.)
- Tickets ($10-$55) are available at 760-724-2110 or moonlightstage.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 30 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.