“In the Heights” at Custom Made Theatre

“In the Heights” at Custom Made Theatre Company

Carol Benet

A brave man is Brian Katz, Artistic Director of the 20- year old Custom Made Theatre Company.  He is producing one of the most challenging plays, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights”, and it is not easy.

First of all, the rap songs demand much of what complicated and modernistic opera requires: singers who can produce the polyphonic music with a spate of words often in ensemble formation.  The young cast chosen for this production is indefatigable.  They have to be young to preform it.

“In the Heights” took home many major awards in New York in 2008 and later in London.  It deserved everyone of them as it ushered in a new form of musical performance with a language that was strange to the usual opera attendee.  For the typical opera goer, rap is like trying to figure out the lyrics in a foreign language but without subtitles.

Lin-Manual Miranda is one of the biggest names in musical comedy history for his show “Hamilton” whose tickets are difficult to obtain and are still very expensive in New York.  I payed about $600 a year ago.

“In the Heights”, Miranda’s first major show on Broadway, tells the story of people living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York and these were not the Germans who escaped Hitler and settled in the Heights in the 30s and 40s of the last century.

But the Heights in this play belong to the Latinos from various countries, blacks and Asians who form the American melting pot.  We follow Nina (Carla Gallardo) who has returned home after dropping out of Stanford where she had a partial scholarship.  She explained that she had to work two jobs just to afford the textbooks that she never had time to read.

Her parents, played by Bidalia E. Albanese and Sergio Lobito, are understandably disturbed by this news.  The father decides to sell his taxi dispatch business in order to pay the tuition but at the same time he forbids Nina’s back boy friend Benny (Dedrick Wetherby) to ever see his daughter again.  This is a double whammy for Benny because he is loosing his job working for the father as well.

Another story is told by the grandmother Abuela Claudia (Michelle Navarrete).  And three girlfriends, whose sassy songs and dances sparkle with a Latin beat, have more stories.  But here is the rub.  Not all of the voices are capable of singing this music, a score of dozens of songs for each of the two Acts.

But I would not want to have missed “In the Heights” and I am happy that the troupe has brought it to us at a reasonable (not Broadway) price.

You can thank the director/choreographer Nicol Meñez and the Music Director Louis Lagalante along with Brian Katz for bringing this play to the Bay Area.  The set design by Mara Ishihara Zinky is brilliant with a brick covered exterior walls and  both the interior of the bodega owned by Usanavi (Julio Chavez) and the inside of the taxi dispatch space made by merely turning a central island around to create the new scene.  Ella Cooley’s sound and Chris Lundahl’s lighting are fine.  Marisely Cortes’s costume design is excellent, especially when the characters go into the 1940s when their wigs and costumes had to be appropriate for his time period.

Bravo to the entire company and long live the small theaters in the Bay Area!

“In the Heights” runs through December 15, 2018 at The Custom Made Theatre, upstairs at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, one block west of Union Square. or 415 798 2682.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to and all posts by Carol Benet →