SpeakEasy's "In the Heights": You Want Salsa with That?

Note: The following should not be read as an actual review of this production, as a random mechanical error involving the dimmer rack caused the lighting board to shut down twice. Thus theatergoers familiar with SpeakEasy's history of musicals ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" this season, and "Xanadu", "The Adding Machine", and countless others) would be wise to purchase tickets based on those experiences.

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s final production for the season is “In the Heights”, the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical (as well as Best Score, Orchestrations and Choreography, after a total of thirteen nominations). It was also a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and won a Grammy Award to boot. With music, lyrics and original conception by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the New York version) and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it was a revelation: a hit musical (running almost three years on Broadway after five months off-Broadway) composed of hip hop, rap and salsa. “West Side Story” it’s not, and yet that’s the musical that this one most closely resembles both in soaring spirits and even higher kicks. From the first few notes delivered by the play’s hero, Usnavi (Diego Klock-Perez), it’s clear we’re not in Kansas anymore. But fear not. Even if rap isn’t your bag, you’ll be won over by the music, the lyrics and especially the dancing.

It’s July 3rd and there’s a record heat wave in the hood, New York City’s Washington Heights, a close-knit Latino community. There are four businesses on view. The bodega owned by Usnavi is opening for the day, as he dreams of returning someday to his home in the Dominican Republic with his adopted Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia (Carolyn Saxon) who has raised him. His cousin Sonny (Jorge Barranco) helps with the store and his friend Benny (Jared Dixon) drops by. Usnavi’s girlfriend Vanessa (Alessandra Valea) works along with Carla (Jasmine Knight) in the nearby beauty salon owned by Daniela (Merissa Haddad). Another storefront is a taxi business owned by Kevin (Tony Castellanos) and Camila (Nicole Paloma Sarro), whose daughter Nina (Santina Umbach) has just arrived from her first year in college.The fourth business is a cart driven by “Piragua (shaved ice) Guy” (Anthony Alfaro). As the heat wears on, we discover all’s not well in the Heights. Not only does Usnavi long for his ancestral island, but Vanessa wants to move to the West Village; Nina almost flunked out of college, and her parents Kevin and Camila need a quick loan; Daniela’s rent increases so high she has to move the salon to the Bronx, and Benny needs a job and a girl. Has there ever been a musical in such communal need of a true bochinche (ruckus) to shake things up?

There won’t be a quiz, and suffice it to say that things will get worse before they get better, but since this is a musical comedy, things will and do. In this incarnation, helmed by Director Paul Daigneault and Choreographer Larry Sousa, there’s never any doubt. And the cast has managed to balance the various dilemmas with an infectious energy. There are a couple of dozen numbers in the show, which doesn’t begin to tell the backstory: Miranda wrote some sixty songs for the work that never saw the light of Broadway. Amazingly, even the minor character Piragua Guy gets a solo (and a reprise to boot) for as Miranda put it, he deserves one, as he too has his story to tell. Once the initial shock of the opening rap number subsides, it comes as a relief that the rest of the score is more lyrical than one dared hope, full of wisdom and whimsy, continually advancing the central sweet story of a family of neighbors in various crises. It’s a somewhat (you should perdone the expression) white-washed tale told more in song than in grit by the principals and the entire ensemble. In addition to the featured players named above, the cast consists of Christian Denzel Bufford, Sarah Crane, Lauren Csete, Sean Jones, Melanie Porras, Chris Ramirez, and Adrian Ruz.

When singing, dancing, direction, and choreography come together seamlessly, it’s maravilloso, as was the case with the Broadway original, with the added fascination of seeing composer/lyricist  Miranda perform his own material from his own life. Anticipation was high for experiencing a local troupe’s take on the story. Unfortunately, technical glitches during the opening performance prevented an accurate assessment. The sound balance between the eight piece band and the singers (even though the latter were amplified) was distorted to the extent that one who was unfamiliar with the score could easily have missed some truly essential plot points. Some of the costuming was unflattering to say the least, and annoyingly distracting. Worse, the lighting system broke down, producing some weird out of body experiences, several times bringing up the house lights.The cast is to be commended for soldiering on. Given the technical disaster, it’s impossible, and even unfair, to comment on any of the performances.

Sometimes the magic of live theater succumbs to the pitfalls of live theater. Still, given the excellent track record of SpeakEasy’s Daigneault in staging musicals, theatergoers who haven’t seen this work should feel confident in deciding to attend; surely there’s gold in them there heights.

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