Regional Reviews: Phoenix
While the characters of "the Heights" may be mostly Latino, it doesn't matter what your background or ethnicity is, as Miranda and Hudes' story features identifiable individuals and universal themes that resonate. 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. Usnavi secretly longs for Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon next door, while across the street from Usnavi's shop is a taxi dispatch company where Usnavi's friend Benny works. The taxi company is run by Kevin and Camila, whose daughter Nina has just returned home from college with some surprising news. Usnavi also 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 better lives for themselves.
The musical is full of realistic characters who have both strengths and shortcomings, which makes you care for them even more as they struggle in dealing with the situations life has thrown at them. Miranda's wide-ranging score is infused with hip-hop, salsa and merengue, along with some beautiful ballads and romantic duets that are in a more traditional musical theatre style. Like Hamilton, Miranda also includes some rap, mostly for Usnavi's narration, along with lyrics that are impressive in their humor, creativity, and incredible rhyme structure. Hudes' book is succinct and swift and perfectly complements Miranda's lyrics to quickly create identifiable characters.
Under Ricky Araiza's impressive direction, DFT's cast is more than capable of portraying the pain, dreams, pressures and joys of this courageous group of people. With a beautiful sense of compassion and a clear connection to all of his castmates, Johnny Ramirez makes a perfect Usnavi. Sonia Rodriguez Wood is superb as Abuela. Her rich singing voice and empathetic portrayal of this beloved character is spot-on perfect and a huge crowd pleaser. Issie Ocampo and Reginald Graham have amazing voices that soar on Nina and Benny's many songs. Ocampo is perfect in showing how her character doesn't quite know how to deal with a recent setback and how she feels lost and directionless, while Graham's deep, soulful voice and the kindness he instills in Benny immediately make you see why Nina would fall for him.
Gutsy and vibrant, Amanda Glenn brings the right balance between sex appeal and uncertainty to Vanessa, better than I've witnessed in past productions. As Nina's parents, Damon J. Bolling and Ashley Kerin Martinez are excellent, with perfect acting choices and a deep sense of care and a beautiful connection to each other and to Ocampo. Eric Williams adds plenty of humor as Sonny, and Monica Hernandez Bollt is hilarious as the gossiping hair salon owner. Saul Angulo adds some impressive dance moves as Graffiti Pete.
Araiza's direction of the cast adds not only a superb realness to the show but also a vibrant pulse and a big heart that makes the emotional moments resonate. His decision to stage this show in the round (with the exceptional orchestra placed on one end of the rectangular shaped space) works very well with just a couple of drawbacks. With string lights and flags strung overhead, Araiza employs just two milk crates, a couple of stools, a rolling cart, and a ladder to portray the locales. While the closeness of the actors adds an intimacy and connection that a traditional thrust stage environment doesn't always allow, the lack of any major set pieces (and very few props) means that we don't get a clear understanding of the three main locations in the show, or how the shops are all right next door to each other. While this minimalistic approach adds a nice imaginary, theatrical component to the show, it doesn't quite achieve the sense of a few key moments, like when Usnavi encounters a slight setback at his store and when something is revealed at the end of the show that is supposed to be on the grate of his shop, but here resembles a simple window shade in a nondescript location.
Fortunately, the nine-piece orchestra, under the combined musical direction of Mario Yniquez and Titus Kautz, is smoking hot, the combination of Laura Berry's superb lighting and Tamara Treat's excellent, character appropriate costume designs, plus the great vocals from the cast help smooth over the lack of set elements. Berry's lighting for a fireworks scene is stunning and Chelsea Neiss' choreography is exuberant and celebratory.
In the Heights is a musical that expertly portrays the sense of community exhibited by a large group of courageous neighbors. Desert Foothills Theater's production has very good direction, lovely creative elements, and an excellent cast who beautifully portray this group of joyous and joyful characters. Even though I wished there were a slightly more refined scenic design, the end result is a celebratory production of this Tony winning musical that beautifully shows how a group of mostly non-related individuals help each other as they attempt to dream and build a better future for themselves and their neighborhood.
In the Heights, through April 15th, 2018, at Desert Foothills Theater, Cactus Shadows Fine Art Center, 33606 N. 60th Street, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets and information on upcoming shows can be found at www.desertfoothillstheater.org or by calling 480 488-1981.
Directed by Ricky Araiza
*Member, Actors' Equity Association