Regional Reviews: Boston
In The Heights
Also see Matthew's review of The Boston Pops with Megan Hilty
I always look forward to the SpeakEasy Stage Company's productions of big Broadway musicals, anticipating that they will do justice to the source material, at the same time putting their signature stamp on it. The recently twice-extended Boston regional premiere of In The Heights, directed by SpeakEasy Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, continues the fine tradition of ascending every peak in the original musical while infusing it with local flavor, homegrown talent, and an intimacy that connects the audience and cast as if we were all neighbors in Washington Heights.
Diego Klock-Perez and the Cast
The close quarters of the Roberts Studio Theatre give a boost to the feeling of intimacy, but it is primarily created by the strong synergy of the young, energetic ensemble. Chalk that up to the fact that nearly two-thirds (eleven) of them are past or present students of The Boston Conservatory, forging a bond that translates into a family-like tableau on the stage. Daigneault serves on the faculty and obviously has a discerning eye for the talent that surrounds him at the school. Conservatory senior Diego Klock-Perez owns the stage as Usnavi, the role originated by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, and is equally comfortable as the narrator and linchpin of the community. His ease among his castmates feels organic, especially with Jorge Barranco (cousin Sonny), Alessandra Valea (Usnavi's love interest Vanessa) and Santina Umbach (Nina, his platonic dear friend).
Barranco is a crowd favorite, capturing both the bratty and engaging aspects of his character. With her flowing, brunette locks and long legs, Valea makes it obvious why all the boys are drawn to Vanessa and puts some quality kick into Larry Sousa's choreography. After a year of touring with a cruise company, Umbach returns to SpeakEasy and picks up where she left off in her previous acclaimed performances. Her portrayal of Nina is grounded in a knowing maturity that shows an understanding of the smart girl's quandary. The pride of her parents and the neighborhood, Nina has arrived home after dropping out of college and losing herself along the way. She doesn't want to be a disappointment, but she needs to figure out who she is other than the barrio's poster child. Umbach beautifully tells Nina's story in "Breathe" and "Everything I Know."
Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes conceived of a dozen fully realized, three-dimensional characters, from the major players down to Graffiti Pete, hairdressers Carla and Daniela, and the Piragua (shaved ice) Guy. Correspondingly, Sean Jones, Jasmine Knight, Merissa Haddad and Anthony Alfaro bring something special to those roles with crisp dancing, comedic skills, great pipes with a sassy attitude, and sweet vocals, respectively. Nicole Paloma Sarro and Tony Castellanos combine dignity and fiery emotion as Nina's parents, the proud owners of a car service who are willing to sacrifice their livelihood for their only daughter. The family solidarity is challenged when their top employee Benny (smooth-voiced Jared Dixon) gets involved with Nina and threatens their dreams for her future. Carolyn Saxon is the communal Abuela Claudia whose warmth and positive outlook earn her love and respect from everyone. Although she appears a little young for the role, Saxon carries herself with world-weariness and dotes on the others like a grandmother. Despite her character's weak heart, she displays powerful pipes when she belts out Claudia's personal credo "Pacienca y Fe" ("Patience and Faith").
In The Heights is a traditional musical in many ways, but it is close to being sung-through and much of the story is told in Miranda's compelling lyrics. Its musical styles include hip hop, salsa and jazz, all of which are delivered tirelessly in song and dance by the entire triple-threat ensemble. Sousa's eclectic choreography is especially exciting in the club scene at the end of the first act and during "Carnaval del Barrio." At times, the stage is overcrowded with dancers, but that is a minor criticism as they are all so good and fun to watch. Music Director Nicholas James Connell and seven musicians are a tight combo that produce all the right sounds to make the hot dance numbers hot and the sultry love ballads steamy.
Designers Jenna McFarland Lord (scenic), Elisabetta Polito (costume), Karen Perlow (lighting) and Eric Norris (sound) authentically create the barrio where storefronts, stoops and fire escapes are the settings for daily life among its close-knit denizens. Director Daigneault guides his cast with enough control to convey the dramatic elements of the story, but allows sufficient free rein not to squash their exuberance and energy. He lets the young people, many of them at the start of their own journeys, show the journey these characters are on by bringing themselves to the roles. Their pride in their performances mirrors the pride depicted in the play's Washington Heights Latino community.
In The Heights was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards in 2008 and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, and ran for three years on Broadway. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009. The musical is not only for the young as its lessons about family, love, friendship and surviving are universal. It is a rite of passage in most communities to choose between getting out and staying with your roots. Perhaps this conundrum rings more true at this time of year when commencement ceremonies occur and graduates go forth to begin their own lives. In The Heights may offer a template for some, even as it makes it clear that not everyone makes the same choice. What is most important is that each individual makes the choice that fits them best and leads them to a place they can call home.
In The Heights performances extended through June 30 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or visit www.speakeasystage.com. Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Directed by Paul Daigneault, Musical Direction by Nicholas James Connell, Choreographed by Larry Sousa; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Eric Norris; Stage Manager, Amy Louise Spalletta; Assistant Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio.
Cast: Anthony Alfaro, Jorge Barranco, Christian Bufford, Tony Castellanos, Sarah Crane, Lauren Csete, Jared Dixon, Merissa Haddad, Sean Jones, Diego Klock-Perez, Jasmine Knight, Melanie Porras, Chris Ramirez, Adrian Ruz, Nicole Paloma Sarro, Carolyn Saxon, Santina Umbach, Alessandra Valea
- Nancy Grossman