Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

In the Heights
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Once, Things I Know to Be True, Newsies, and Lea Salonga: The Human Heart


Israel Jimenez, Avery Jones, Frenki Hykollari,
Alek Rahman, and Cast

Photo by Justin McBride
Lin-Manuel Miranda may be well-known today for creating Hamilton, but just seven years before that show brought him a slew of Tony Awards and worldwide acclaim, he created, with bookwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, a beautiful, original musical about a close-knit group of friends in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. In the Heights, just like Hamilton, also won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score, and the story it tells of this vibrant community and the dreams they have, the pressures they face, and how they come together to support each other beautifully depicts the true meaning of "home." Mesa Encore Theatre's production has a talented cast and clear direction that exhibit the life, love and heart of this joyful musical.

In the Heights takes place over a few days surrounding the July 4th holiday and centers on the people in the life of the young bodega owner Usnavi and the friends and family members who frequent his store in his predominantly Latinx community of Washington Heights. Usnavi dreams of winning the lottery one day so he can open a bar in his homeland, the Dominican Republic, but he's also hopelessly in love with Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon next door. Usnavi's friend Benny works across the street at a family-owned taxi dispatch company run by Kevin and Camila, whose daughter Nina has just returned home from her first year away at college. Usnavi's younger cousin Sonny works for him and he also watches over "Abuela" Claudia, the aging Cuban woman who raised him and Sonny after the death of his parents. Throughout the course of the show, secrets are revealed, fantasies are fulfilled, and we see how this entire group of individuals, many of whom aren’t related, are now a "family" who all aspire to make a better life for themselves and the people they love.

Miranda's score is a perfect wide-ranging blend of hip-hop, salsa, rap and merengue with traditional musical theatre ballads and comical songs, and his lyrics feature heartfelt words and whimsical rhyme schemes. Hudes' book briskly moves things along while expertly introducing each character's strengths and weaknesses without any unnecessary padding or moments. There are ten major characters in the show, but they are so clearly identified that it's easy to understand the struggles they each face.

While a few of the ten main characters are more prominent than the rest, In the Heights really is an ensemble musical and director Marcos D. Voss has assembled a group of actors who are very capable of presenting fleshed out portrayals of these realistic individuals. Israel Jimenez is quite good as Usnavi, who serves as the main narrator of the show. Jimenez provides plenty of heart along with fun, comical touches for this very compassionate character, though the combination of his occasionally rushed line delivery and frantic nature is a slight drawback, as some of his lyrics and dialogue are missed. As Abuela Claudia, Greta Skelly is a complete knock-out. She brings so much energy, warmth and humility to this woman that you can immediately understand why everyone cares for her. Her performance of "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith") is infused with passion.

Alek Rahman is a very talented singer and dancer and makes for a gutsy and vibrant Vanessa, Usnavi's love interest. As Nina, Frenki Hykollari's voice soars and she has a refined stage presence that pulls us in and immediately lets us see how her character feels uncertain, having recently lost her way. As Nina's parents Kevin and Camila, Damon J. Bolling and Monica Hernandez Bollt form a realistic couple who bicker and fight, though it's clear they deeply care for each other and for Nina. Avery Jones is charming as Benny, the young man who works for Kevin and Camila and who has a thing for Nina, and Adrian de Guzman is adorable, with perfect comic timing, as the sweet and funny Sonny. Also, Luz Navarro and Cné Serrano provide plenty of humor as salon owner Daniela and the slightly clueless salon worker Carla. In smaller parts, Chris Chavez is warm and bright as the singing Piragua Guy, and James McCormick is a talented dancer as Graffiti Pete.

Voss' direction brings an abundance of energy to the entire production and he stages the action well on Lorelee Golden's gorgeous, large, and multi-tiered set. Choreographer Nick Flores created the dances for Phoenix Theatre Company's 2016 production of the show and his work here is equally impressive, with varied and vibrant steps and dance sequences that effectively feature and highlight the large ensemble. Lorenzo Slavin's music direction derives gorgeous sounds from both the large cast and the impressive eight-piece orchestra. Voss also designed the costumes and they are perfect and character specific. Stacey Watson's lighting works well to portray the various times of day depicted in the show along with the reflection of exploding fireworks overhead. Unfortunately, the only creative aspect that isn't on the same level as the rest is the sound design. At the performance I attended there were many times when the sound mix was off and the lead singers' voices could barely be heard over the ensemble or the band. This was especially unfortunate in the final scene when Jimenez's lyrics and dialogue were almost unintelligible. Hopefully, with just some slight tweaking the levels can be adjusted to correct this unfortunate oversight.

While the characters may be mostly Latino, In the Heights is a musical with a universal appeal that will most likely resonate with everyone. Just about all of us have formed a close-knit "family" with people we aren't related to and through that community of friends have come together to help each other through setbacks while also celebrating our successes. That sense of finding your family and your "home" are what make In the Heights a moving and emotionally rich piece of musical theatre.

In the Heights, through June 2, 2019, at Mesa Encore Theatre with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. Tickets and information on upcoming MET shows can be ordered by calling 480-644-6500 or at www.mesaencoretheatre.com/.

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Producer: Pam Pershing
Director: Marcos D. Voss
Music Director: Lorenzo Slavin
Choreographer: Nick Flores
Stage Manager: Travis Bovard
Technical Director: Kerry Jordan
Set Designer: Lorelee Golden
Lighting Designer: Stacey Watson
Sound Designer: Justin Anderson
Properties/ Hair/Make-Up: Elena Beltran
Costume Design: Marcos D. Voss

Cast:
Usnavi: Israel Jimenez
Nina Rosario: Frenki Hykollari
Kevin Rosario: Damon J. Bolling*
Camila Rosario: Monica Hernandez Bollt
Benny: Avery Jones
Vanessa: Alek Rahman
Sonny: Adrian de Guzman
Abuela Claudia: Greta Skelly
Daniela: Luz Navarro
Carla: Cné Serrano
Graffiti Pete: James McCormick
Piragua Guy: Chris Chavez
Male Ensemble: Christian Aytch, Jesus Diaz, Quincy Jackson
Female Ensemble: Alejandra Castro Luna, Brooklyn Merchant, Chelsea Chorley, Cristianna Crognale, Estrella Parra, Jamie Villarreal, Jordyn Bland, Lily Espinoza, Natalie Payan, Rebeca Ronstadt-Contreras, Wai Abang, Donovan Blau, Isaiah Cons

*appears courtesy Actors' Equity Association


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