Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set over three days one summer around the July 4th holiday in the Washington Heights neighborhood in northern Manhattan, the plot centers on bodega owner Usnavi who dreams of winning the lottery one day so he can open a bar in his homeland, the Dominican Republic, while secretly longing for Vanessa who works at the beauty salon next door. Across the street from Usnavi's shop is a taxi dispatch company run by Kevin and Camila whose daughter Nina has just returned home from college with some surprising news. Usnavi looks after "Abuela" Claudia, the aging Cuban woman who raised him after the death of his parents, and his younger cousin Sonny, as the entire group aspire to build a better life for themselves.
Miranda's score features a decent amount of rap, but don't let that scare you off as the score features a wide range of musical styles, including musical theatre, and he is a gifted lyricist with a penchant for exceptional, and sometimes very humorous, rhymes. Hudes' book has very little padding which helps move the plot along quickly. The book and lyrics also clearly identify the various characters' strengths and foibles which makes you care for them even more as they struggle in dealing with situations that life has thrown at them. This is a show that will resonate with you, no matter what your background or ethnicity is.
In the Heights is a true ensemble show and Phoenix Theatre's cast is top notch, led by an outstanding Pasha Yamotahari as Usnavi. While Usnavi is the main narrator, his aspirations and issues aren't any more important than those of the rest of the characters, and Yamotahari is very good at showing how Usnavi provides compassion to those around him and he also instills a deep close-knit feeling with the cast. His expert facial expressions provide many comical touches and make this out-going, yet shy around women, man someone you truly care about. Johanna Carlisle infuses Abuela Claudia with such humility and empathy that you can't help but fall in love with her and wish that she was your abuela as well.
Alyssa Chiarello is a knock-out as Vanessa, Usnavi's love interest. Her gutsy portrayal, terrific singing voice, and sleek dancing skills create an exciting character that makes it very easy to see why Usnavi has fallen for her. As Nina, a young woman who has recently lost her way, Noellia Hernandez does well in showing us how she is somewhat ashamed and no longer proud. She forms a realistic couple with Christopher Brasfield as Benny, whose warm voice provides depth and meaning in his songs. Micha Espinosa and Joseph Micalizio do good work as Nina's parents, Camila and Kevin, with Micalizio's solo "Inutil (Useless)" especially powerful. Greg Laucella is adorable as the charming and sweet Sonny, and Lynzee Foreman is a hoot as the gossiping salon owner Daniela. In smaller parts, Chanel Bragg adds pops of comedy as the clueless salon worker Carla and Lucas Coatney is a crowd pleaser as the sweet natured singing Piragua Guy.
Director Robert Kolby Harper instills the entire production with a pulsating energy that helps infuse the characters with a realness. Each actor creates an individual full of intense, yet natural, emotions combined with moments of natural humor. The vibrant choreography by Nick Flores explodes across the stage and is danced very well by the main cast and the superb ensemble. Alan Ruch's music direction provides a lush and full sound from the cast and orchestra. While the set design is a rental from the national tour, Anna Louizos' slightly scaled down, Tony nominated work is still excellent and Cari Sue Smith's costumes are eclectic, inspired, and character appropriate.
In the Heights is an exuberant musical full of joyous and joyful characters and is a true celebration of the sense of community and the deep bond that this unrelated group of individuals has formed. While Phoenix may be over 2,000 miles from Washington Heights, the stories of these individuals who attempt to carry and build upon the dreams of their neighborhood to build a better future for themselves is universal. With lively direction and a superb cast, Phoenix Theater's sophisticated production is exceptional.
In the Heights runs through October 2nd, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151.
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
*Members of Actors' Equity Association