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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

In the Heights
Schuster Center
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule


Fernando Collado and Justin Gregory Lopez
Photo by Rich Ryan
With the enormous popularity of the musical Hamilton, it isn't surprising that there's renewed interest in another musical by the same creators: In The Heights. Having just completed its run in St. Paul, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and Teatro del Pueblo production of this charming, tuneful show is at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, for a six-day engagement and features excellent performances and design elements.

In The Heights follows the denizens of Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic neighborhood at the top of Manhattan. The show focuses on Usnavi, who runs the local bodega selling coffee and snacks with his cousin Sonny. A colorful cast of characters brings a mix of cultures, dreams, and life situations together, all culminating with a lottery win, a blackout, and big decisions about their next steps in life.

The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, boasts a score by songwriter/performer wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Like Hamilton, Miranda's score for In The Heights includes a mix of musical styles including rap, hip-hop, various Latin styles, R&B, and traditional musical theater numbers. Also present are Miranda's witty lyrics, providing both insight and humor, and capturing the modern vernacular of today's youth. Anyone familiar with Hamilton will recognize Miranda's style in this musical as well. Among the lively songs in the show are the wonderful titular opening number, the soaring "When You're Home" (a duet for Benny and Nina), and "96,000," a song layered with multiple musical motifs as the leading characters dream of what they'd do if they won the lottery.

Where In The Heights falters in comparison with Hamilton is the story. The book by Quiara Alegría Hudes is interesting and amiable, and contains some solid comedy, romance and pathos. However, it's also fairly simplistic, presenting a "slice of life" of these everyday characters. This simplicity is part of the charm, but when compared to enormous scale and the life and death story of building a nation that Hamilton covers, the intrigue and stakes can't compete.

Co-directors/choreographers Alberto Justiniano and James A. Rocco provide clear storytelling, an apt pace, and visually pleasing blocking. The tone of the piece has a unique ebb and flow, and the directors have captured it accurately in their staging. The many dances are vibrant and feel organic to the material, and differ from the Broadway choreography. Musical director Eugenio A Vargas leads a great sounding nine-piece orchestra.

This production uses the authentic looking, yet functional unit set created by Anna Louizos for the Broadway staging. The costumes by Trevor Bowen are fun and apt, and Jesse Cogswell's lighting includes some nifty affects (fireworks), great use of spotlights to identify singers during group numbers and for dramatic effect, and uses subtle light changes to show the various stages of day light over the 3-day period covered by the show.

The all-around outstanding cast is capably led by Justin Gregory Lopez as Usnavi. He captures the romantically awkward, neighborhood-loving, and sentimental attitude of the character with his acting, and sings and raps with great clarity. Aline Mayagoitia (Nina) and Val Nuccio (Vanessa) both display superb singing voices, and bring out the layers of their very different leading female characters with skill. As Benny, Stephen Scott Wormley puts his magnificent, soulful voice to great use, and he and Ms. Mayagoitia have solid chemistry and execute some of the score's best numbers together in the show.

Debra Cardona (Abuela Claudia), Pedro R. Bayon (Kevin), and Lara Trujillo (Camila) portray the older characters skillfully, and provide impassioned, fierce delivery of some of the more serious songs in the show. The roles played by Fernando Collado (Sonny), Emily Madigan (Carla), and Lauren Villegas (Daniela) lean toward the comedic, and all do well garnering laughs and are vocally satisfying. The ensemble members execute the choreography with energy and skill, and are to be commended for their hard work throughout.

In The Heights is about the importance of community, and with all the issues happening in the world in recent months, it's an apt message to consider. The musical boasts an excellent score and a solid story, and this production contains a first-rate cast.

In The Heights continues at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, through October 8, 2017. For tickets and schedule, call 937-228-3630 or visit www.schustercenter.org.


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