By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
It’s taken 16 years since it first bowed at the Public Theatre and 15 years after it became a Broadway smash, but In the Heights has finally arrived, making its regional New Orleans theatre premiere. The first Lin-Manuel Miranda musical to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, In the Heights is a love letter by Miranda to his spiritual home of New York City and its place as a nexus for Latin culture.
But beyond its place in theatre history as the first of Miranda’s musicals to be produced both locally and independently, In the Heights is also the first successful blending of hip hop culture with more traditional musical theatre staging. It was the precursor to Bring It On: The Musical, but more importantly, laid the foundation and cleared the way for Miranda’s blockbuster Hamilton, which also opened at the Public Theatre in 2015 before transferring to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it has been doing record-breaking business ever since.
But the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) is not performing Hamilton. It is presenting a rich and intricate tapestry of Latin pride expressed in the music, fashion and artistic expression of the people of Caribbean, Central and South America who make New York their home. With a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Miranda, In the Heights breathes the music of the streets and its colorful costuming by ensemble member A.J. Hernandez is executed brilliantly by director and choreographer Michelle Pietri.
In the central role of Usnavi is Alcee Jones, a likable small bodega owner, who provides coffee and essentials to the local neighborhood. He is a Dominican orphan being raised by his Abuela Claudia, a woman who is like a grandmother to him, although not related by blood. Claudia, whose broad smile belies some of what she has endured in life, cooks meals for the kids so that their bellies are full and they have a sense of real community and family. Elana Polin plays the irrepressible free spirit, who eschews her medicine and who enjoys taking care of others that she sometimes doesn’t take care of herself.
Usnavi clearly wants the American dream, but he finds it hard to find while trying to eke out a living and is thinking of returning to the Dominican Republic. Attracted as he is to the lovely Vanessa, a down-on-her-luck girl, he hardly gets noticed and is somewhat shy in trying to figure out how to approach her. Usnavi’s best friend is Benny, a role played with gusto by Neal Eli. Benny has been working for several years for a car service owned by Kevin Rosario, (Paul Bello) who thinks of him as just a kid.
Rosario’s daughter Nina is played by Kelly Laines, a newcomer with an incredibly powerful voice. Nina has just come back from Stanford, but without family and the support of her community, she has not enjoyed a glowing academic career. In fact, she has hidden the fact she lost her scholarship due to poor performance and dropped out. She feels the pressure that she is letting her family and community down (“Breathe”). However, she and Benny have history and she offers to help him learn Spanish in order to become a dispatcher for the company. The two share several of the better duets throughout the work, especially in Act II’s opener “Sunrise” and the penultimate number “When the Sun Goes Down.”
Camila Rosario, Nina’s mother and Kevin’s wife is Elizabeth Ulloa Lowry. She has to deal with a disillusioned daughter and an irrational husband, who thinks he has to make major life decisions without consulting her. It sets up a showdown in the second act between Benny and the Rosarios.
Trying to get ahead any way he can is Claudio Venancio as Sonny. He is likable and resourceful and Usnavi feels a sense of attachment to him. Usnavi wants to help Sonny succeed, but he also wants to keep Vanessa, who works as a hair stylist, close by. Vanessa wants to get away and she says so in “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Sonny and Usnavi in support.
Daniela, the hair salon owner, is enjoying so much success that she must move away to Brooklyn, a decision that means a necessary business for the community will soon be gone. Played by Skylar Broussard, Daniela also has some of the funnier lines in the book as she makes comments on all her neighbors. She is joined by Carla (Rachel Carter), Nina and Vanessa at the shop where the locks get cropped and the gossip flows like the water in the shampoo bowls (“No Me Diga”).
Graffiti Pete (Clarence Smith), a neighborhood graffiti artist is a minor character in the show, but becomes an important figure in the second act. The barrio is all abuzz over the mysterious, unnamed winner of a lottery ticket valued at $96,000. It’s a subject of speculation that has little affect on the coming and going of the Piragua Guy, played by Adriel Jones. He scrapes his ice and makes the summer heat bearable with his frozen piragua treats. One of the more lilting numbers in the work is Jones front and center on stage singing “Piragua” to let everyone know about it.
Pietri worked on the intricate choreography over the course of six weeks, bringing different groups together in the final weeks on major numbers like “Paceiencia y Fe (“Patience and Faith”), “The Club/Fireworks,” “Sunrise” and in particular “Carnival del Barrio,” which is especially moving with its shout out to all of the countries represented by characters on stage and their very own real life connections to other Latin countries or territories.
The flags of all the countries are hung from balconies or fly in the air, a fitting tribute to the multi-cultural neighborhood depicted in In the Heights. The dancing is also pretty terrific. The ensemble does excellent work in carrying out the demanding choreography in the several big numbers and the finale. AJ Hernandez also assisted the director a s the assistant choreographer.
Conductor Dennis Assaf does a wonderful job of bringing forth the Latin rhythms, especially with the proper amount of orchestration provided by music director Richard Cordova. the costumes by AJ Hernandez are also outstanding, capturing a number of different cultural aspects. Eric Porter’s massive and functional set design serves as the central gathering places of the club and the neighborhood. The scenic design includes the Rosario Car Service Company, Usnavi and Abuela Claudia’s home, Usnavi’s bodega and Daniela’s beauty salon. Edward Cox assisted as the scenic charge artist.
With In the Heights, JPAS proves it is quite capable of producing newer and more innovative works that might make more recent Broadway offerings a standard for their future.
The only downside on this production is the lighting, which finds several of the principals on stage in silhouette at times when they should be more prominently featured. It is hard to say if the design was the intention of director Pietri or lighting designer Jonathan Michael Gonzales.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, directed by Michelle Pietri, and produced by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, finishes its run at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie this weekend with performances on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets click here or call 504-885-2000.