IN THE HEIGHTS – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes; Directed by Jonathan Andujar. Produced by Vintage Theatre Company (1468 Dayton, Aurora) through July 30. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.org.
By this time, nearly everyone that has gone even near a theatre in the last ten years has heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda with his crazy ride to well-deserved success. But what about Quiara Alegria Hudes, his writing partner in this so beloved undertaking? This remarkable woman began writing at an early age and, by the time she was thirty, had not only contributed to this musical phenomenon, but had also written two of three plays called the ELLIOT TRILOGY, won a Pulitzer Prize for WATER BY THE SPOONFUL (the 2nd of the trilogy) and was well on her way to her own incredible success story. Denver theatre directors, she is turning out new plays all the time. While Curious has done the trilogy and the Fox did her second musical, MISS YOU LIKE HELL, there are many more waiting to be performed for local audiences. Get your readers on it!!
This Vintage version of the collaboration of Miranda and Hudes is exuberant, colorful and touching. While there are Hispanic and non-Hispanic names in the program, it was decidedly BIPOC in look and feel. There seemed to be an ease to the cast, a familiarity of language and movement, a community of players that were happy to tell a version of their own story. Kudos to Vintage and to director Jonathan Andujar for creating this team of talented performers who were ready to play together.
A hot weekend in Washington Heights is the place where decisions are being made. Do I stay or do I go? Do I ask her or do I not? If I ask her, how will she answer me? Will it ever cool off? Who turned the lights off? Some life-altering action is going on in this heat. Usnavi wants to ask Vanessa out but is too shy. Nina must confess to her friends and family that she has dropped out of college. Benny must tell Nina how much he has loved her from afar. Abuela Claudia is getting old and wants to return to the Dominican Republic before it is too late. So much going on . . . all set to music and athletic dancing.
This script is written democratically so that everyone gets a moment to shine. The pairings in song give the couples in the show music to share. Teej Morgan-Arzola (one of my favorite students from DSA) comes on strong as Usnavi (the role originated by Miranda) and carries the plot on his more than able shoulders throughout the evening. He is ready for leading roles and steps into this neighborhood as though he had lived there his entire life. His beautiful song of reminiscence with Claudia (“Hundreds of Stories”) is a declaration of how they have always planned to go home together. He is paired with Vanessa – Karen Gonzalez – the hot chick who works at the local beauty parlor and longs to get out of the Heights. He encourages her to keep the faith in “It Won’t Be Long Now” and they share a bottle of “Champagne” to celebrate mutual success.
George Zamarripa and Ali Chung make an authentic married couple as Kevin and Camila, the owners of a taxi company and Nina’s parents. Kevin is on the controlling side, which is generally OK with Camila until she has finally had it up to here and explodes with “Enough,” putting her foot down to both Kevin and Nina. Ali makes this powerful song her own. What Kevin is trying to control is who Nina dates and her continued schooling. But she and Benny (edin origin) who works for Kevin have already hooked up, making Nina hesitant to leave New York. Nina and Benny have a playful song as she tries to teach him Spanish (“Benny’s Dispatch”) and a pair of songs that celebrate their newfound affection (“Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down”).
Lisa Young was the Abuela Claudia I got to see; she is a calming loving presence every time she walks on stage. It’s easy to imagine her as the younger woman who raised Usnavi and mothered everyone else on her block. Her anthem is Patience and Faith which pays off in the long run for her almost in time for her to enjoy it. All told, it takes 23 songs to explain these people and celebrate their accomplishments and triumphs. Patience and faith does indeed rule the day.
Madison Manning and Marcelina Ramirez (also in the ensemble of brilliant dancers) added to the heat with their street salsa’s and acrobatic choreography. The dancing really is amazing and deserves special recognition. The set, designed by Robert Janacek and Jeff Jesmer, established the neighborhood giving space and texture to the production. Bernie Richard painted the lovely reveal that salutes Abuela Claudia in the finale. Emily Maddox’s lighting design creates heat and darkness lit by fireworks in equal measures. And the costumes, coordinated by Lisa Young, are colorful, authentic, and hot. What’s not to like in this production? Nothing!
A WOW factor of 9!!