Regional Reviews: St. Louis
In the Heights
In The Heights has one foot in a dream-world of modern immigrants in America, and the other in a harsher local reality. The show won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008, with a touching book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and exciting music and lyrics by Hamilton sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda. R-S Theatrics co-founder Christina Rios directs this delightful first local production, drawing entrancing performances from a largely Latin-American cast which, in St. Louis (with its relatively small Latin population), is much easier said than done. There's also complex and thrilling choreography by Cecily A. King, very nicely executed by the cast.
The two heroes of the story are Usnavi (Jesse Munoz), a successful young bodega owner in Washington Heights who holds the neighborhood together with a smile and a great memory for everyone's favorite sweetened coffee, and Nina (Cassandra Lopez), who opens the show with a secretthat she's dropping out of Stanford. On top of that, she ends up in a bi-racial romance with a bubbly black-American, Benny (the delightful Marshall Jennings in a well-deserved role as a lighthearted romantic lead), who works for her father. Then, flash-forward to the very end, when everything's happily cleared up, and Mr. Munoz seems to inadvertently morph into a young John Travolta: it's a crazy, unexpected bonus for a great, life-affirming show.
Halfway through, though, everything falls apart: a riot erupts from a big exciting dance number; then there's a power outage; and then looters bust-up the bodega. But the neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia (self-assured Carmen Garcia), unleashes a torrent of vocal power on stage, and her dreams and memories help sustain them all through the crisisagain, because that's what a musical is. It sounds mechanical, perhaps, but the staccato rhythms of the story are engrossing under Ms. Rios' direction.
There's also fine comic support, in spite of the apparent demise of their new world. Anna Skidis Vargas (who unleashes her own vocal power in a big chorus number) is excellent as the gossipy salon owner, closing her shop and moving away in a sign of impending ruin for the neighborhood. She's taking her stylists with herVanessa (the always splendid, and here, sexy, Natasha Toro), who will become romantically linked with Usnavi, and Carla (the funny Gabriela Diaz). Two popular local actors, Kevin Corpuz and Kelvin Urday, also lend bright comedy and hope as Sonny and a cold drinks vendor, respectively.
Jaime Zayas returns to the stage with a fine, soaring performance, this time as Nina's father Kevin Rosario; and Maritza Motta-Gonzalez (Ms. Toro's real-life mother) is remarkable as Mrs. Rosario, the two running a taxi dispatch service. (Ms. Motta-Gonzalez makes a fine return, after a 35-year absence from the stage, seemingly full of self-assurance.) Their family business is imperiled, leading Mr. Zayas to a great dramatic singing performance in "Inutil" ("Worthless"). And later, Kevin will have to wrestle with his daughter's romantic choices, and having Benny as a potential son-in-law.
The setting is the eve of, and then 24 hours on, a very hot Fourth of July. It's a time, in an unglamorous part of New York City, that seems perfectly suited to all the heated introspection of Lin-Manual Miranda's songs. But there are so many beautiful moments of humane relief and reconciliation, set against yearning Latin anguish, that you can easily sense a beautiful tropic of the heart.
The producer reports that several upcoming performances are already sold out, in a production that's set to close September 3, 2017 at the .Zack performance space. For more information visit www.r-stheatrics.com.