Heights Carnival

In the Heights

In the Heights

 Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed by Nikki Meñez
Custom Made Theatre Co.

With the massive success of Miranda’s Hamilton, theater companies are jumping on the bandwagon of his first smash In the Heights, Custom Made being the latest to mount a local production. On the small stage, the story of a neighborhood in crisis has a confining feel that actually works in the show’s favor. Set in a bodega in the mostly Latino Washington Heights section of New York City, the characters are all in a state of flux; families in turmoil, dreams being challenged, and the pressures and challenges of a changing neighborhood landscape. Miranda’s inventive, ground-breaking score, which should be the star here, was hampered opening night by a bad sound mix that left some of his beautiful lyrics lost in the shuffle. The ensemble acting is superb, lending authenticity to the empathetic characters.

In the Heights, was an instant success, the Off-Broadway production nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards, winning two, as well as winning the Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Musical. The Broadway production was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and won four, including the 2008 Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Choreography awards. The score is a mix of salsa rhythms, freestyle rap and pop influences, a style he would carry through to the Hamilton phenomena.

The opening number “In the Heights” is sung by Usnavi (Julio Chavez), a Dominican immigrant and owner of the bodega that serves as the focal point of the story. The rap introduces the neighborhood characters; Graffiti Pete (Jepoy Ramos), an artist who scrawls on his garage door, Piraguera (Ernie Tovar), a shaved ice seller, Arbuela Claudia (Michelle Navarette), the beloved neighborhood ‘grandma’, the Rosarios, daughter Nina (Carla Gallardo), father Kevin (Sergio Lobito) and mother Camila (Bidalia E. Albanese), Benny (Dedrick Washington) a dispatcher for the Rosario’s cab company, Carla (Elena Ester) and Daniela (Mia Romero) who run the beauty shop, Sonny (Evan Jacobs), the bodega’s slacker assistant and Vanessa (Nora Fernandez Doane) as Usnavi’s love interest.

Vanessa (Nora Fernandez Doane) an Usnavi (Julio Chavez) share a tender moment.

Over the course of the story, issues of cross-ethnic discrimination, vandalism, lack of opportunity, disappointments, romance and grief will disrupt the cozy neighborhood.  Usnavi, delivers the main exposition and is in love with Vanessa, the beauty shop beauty who dreams of an apartment downtown. Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch, is the glue holding the play together. She worked as a maid for years and has now won a $96,000 lotto and sings of her life in “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith)”. Nina Rosario, the ‘good girl” who made it out of the barrio to attend Stanford, is back home, overburdened and overwhelmed. She’s in love with Benny, the African-American dispatcher at her family’s business. Her parents Kevin and Camila Rosario must sell their business to help pay their daughter’s tuition causing strife within the family. Comic foils are Carla, Daniela and Sonny. The Piragua guy and Graffiti Pete are neighborhood staples.

The Rosarios (Camila, Kevin and Nina) are in turmoil.

The songs fly through varying styles, all with Miranda’s keen attention to his people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. They sing of the heat, the blackouts, gossip and carnaval. In 2008 Miranda rocked the musical theatre world with this inventive, creative new genre.  Kudos to Custom Made for daring to bring In the Heights to the intimate setting.

In the Heights continues through December 15th, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.custommade.org or by calling (415) 798-2682.

Photos by Jay Yamada