Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the earliest draft of In the Heights in 1999, during his sophomore year of college at Wesleyan University, where it was performed by the school's student theatre company, The Second Stage. In 2002 Miranda worked with director Tommy Kail on five separate drafts of In the Heights, and a new version of the show was presented at the National Music Theatre Conference in 2005. In February of 2007 it then opened Off-Broadway at the 37 Arts Theater, running through July of that same year. The Off-Broadway production received nine Drama Desk Award nominations, winning two. The musical opened on Broadway on March 9, 2008, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, closing on January 9, 2011, after 29 previews and 1,184 regular performances. The Broadway production was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), and Best Orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman). In The Heights was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Set over a three-day time period, In The Heights begins with the narrator of story, Usnavi (Nick Duckart), opening his corner bodega, which he runs with the help of his jokester, teenaged cousin, Sonny (Rayner G. Garranchan). The store is a staple of the neighborhood, where people stop for their daily coffee and newspaper. The beauty shop next door is run by its sassy owner Daniela (Elise Santora), the beautiful Vanessa (Christie Prades), and the slightly dimwitted Carla (Alicia Taylor Tomasko). There, the three ladies share stories of their lives and gossip about the neighbors. Across the street Abuela Claudia (Doreen Montalvo), the loving matriarch of the barrio, remembers the smallest details of lives of all of those around her. And right next door is the taxi cab company run by the overprotective Kevin Rosario (Oscar Cheda) and his strong-willed wife Carla (Denise Sanchez). Their daughter Nina (Sarah Amengual), who is the first in her family to go to college, is on her way home from her freshman year at Stanford. She is not just the first in her family to go to college, but, as she has done it on an academic scholarship, she is seen by all as one of the few who has made it out. She has returned to the heights with a heavy heart, however, as she was so stressed out by the demands of school and holding down a job, that she has secretly dropped out of school and lost her scholarship. Now she must face disappointing not just her parents, but all of the supportive members of this tight-knit community who it seems have pinned their hopes on her success.
Featuring the contemporary style of rap as well as beautiful ballads, and laced with the sensuous rhythm of Latin music, it is easy to understand why the score to In The Heights won a Tony Award. It is not just the individual songs, or their impact on the moment in which they are placed in the show, but the manner in which the genres are woven together as a musical tapestry. Musical director Manny Schvartzman leads the cast and seven other live musicians impressively through this production. The choreography by Stephanie Klemons (an original cast member of the Broadway production) is impeccable. The street dancing is always engaging, always watchable, never forced or presentationaland always well executed. Again, It is not just the quality of the dancing that makes it so enjoyable, but how/where it is woven into the show. ". The technical aspects of the show are all in place, though one could wish that the set were about four feet further upstage, as it seems that more room downstage (especially for the dancing) would be more visually pleasing, and would provide more depth to some of the staging.
The shining star of this production is Sarah Amengual as Nina. She shows both tenderness and maturity in her acting choices, and has an unusually well placed belt to her voice that is not the strained screaming on pitch usually passed off as belting. Her performance of "Everything I Know" is one of the musical highlights of the show. Marcus Paul James has the right mixture of humor and humanity in his portrayal of Nina's love interest, Benny, and just enough chemistry with Amengual to make it believable. Oscar Cheda as Kevin delivers a particularly passionate "Inutil," nearly matched by Denise Sanchez as Kevin's wife Camila in "Enough."
While the ladies of the beauty shop are all enjoyable, Elise Santora is a scene stealer as Daniela with her spot on comic delivery and reactions. She perfectly embodies the beauty and fiery attitude of this role. Unfortunately, Rayner G. Garranchan as Sonny misses many of the comedic opportunities provided his character by the script. The lines are funny, so it's there in the writing, but he is not. Henry Gainza as the Piragua Guy has a memorable snippet of a melody to sing as he peddles his flavored ice. Much like that flavored ice, the melody is meant to be simple and sweet. Gainza indeed has a lovely voice, but he over-sings his song like it is a show stopping ballad, wringing all of the sweetness out of it.
Nick Duckart shows a great deal of talent in his portrayal of Usnavi. His performance has great humor, depth andmost importantlygreat heart. For the real musicians and fans of rap music in the audience, what he is missing is soul. He gets through all the songs with the right notes, rhythm and phrasing, but misses accentuating the strong and soft beats that provide the rock for the rap. That, combined with some inconsistencies between his singing and speaking accent, makes him feel as though he is (for lack of a better term) missing some street cred. The exception to these observations is his outstanding performance in the "Finale"where Usnavi is at last home. If every song of his were done as well, Duckart's performance as a whole would be stellar. It is a wonderful end to a show whose message is filled with joy and hope through every adversity.
In The Heights will be appearing through April 7, 2013, at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is the nonprofit resident theatre company and managing agent of the historic Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse, which has brought home 75 regional Carbonell Awards for artistic excellence, is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and one of 22 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse offers a year-round season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program, as well as educational arts outreach programs for underserved youth, and has initiated a "Young Talent Big Dreams" contest for children in partnership with The Children's Trust. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at 305-444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.