“In the Heights” is set in the highest part of Manhattan, Washington Heights, a neighborhood that serves as a microcosm of the Latinx immigrant experience.
Staging Lin-Manual Miranda’s award-winning musical (concept, music and lyrics, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes) in a small space like the Kearny Mesa temporary digs of the San Diego Musical Theatre, makes it intimate, maintaining the feeling of a tight, tight community. And this show is all about community and family. (The recent John M. Chu movie was, in my opinion, over the top and hyperbolic)
In the capable, confident, and savvy hands of director Carlos Mendoza (who choreographed the show at the Moonlight Amphitheater in 2017, for which it won acclaim from the San Diego Theater Critics Circle), the musical is personal. It’s moving, energetic and upbeat, thanks to the skillful choreography of Laurie Muñiz.
Hudes’ book is smart, fun and touching. And Miranda’s formidable score captures the essence of multiple countries and cultures: Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Colombian and more.
The cast is exceptional, a wonderful ensemble with strong singing voices (although the female leads seem to have been encouraged to play at a shrill volume at times).
It’s sad that the San Diego Musical Theater no longer supports local musicians, but pre-recorded music works well to keep the flow and energy going.
At the center is the lovable, talented and charismatic Sebastian Montenegro as Usnavi de la Vega, the role Miranda tried out for Off and On Broadway, where the show ran for nearly three years and won four Tonys. Awards in 2009 (he was nominated for 13).
All the main characters are excellent: Charlie Orozco as Sonny, Usnavi’s young, feisty and funny cousin, helping out at the bodega that centers the neighborhood; Arianna Vila as Vanessa, the up-and-coming hairdresser whom Usnavi is too shy and clumsy to ask; Liliana Rodriguez and Lena Ceja as lounge partners (“No Me Diga”); Vanessa Orozco as Nina, the area’s big hope, who won a scholarship to Stanford; Jordan Markus as Benny, who is not accepted by his parents (Berto Fernández and Daisy Martínez) because he is not Latino, despite working diligently at their auto service business for decades years; Analía Romero as Abuela Claudia (who isn’t really anyone’s grandmother, although she grounds the whole block with her wisdom and “Paciencia y Fe”); and the Piragua Guy (Ramiro Garcia, Jr.), who tries to keep them all cool in the scorching summer heat.
These three generations are painfully aware of the sacrifices made by loved ones who brought them to the crowded enclave of New York they call home. As rents rise, they feel the squeeze from encroaching development and gentrification. Everything could disappear – this little island they created in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
Life decisions have to be made – stay or go, dig in or move on. The sense of impending change and loss is palpable.
We witness three days in the life of this reunited family, including a blackout, a spontaneous “Carnaval del Barrio”, lovers who find themselves in the dark and under the fireworks of the 4th of July (set by Mathys Herbert and Michelle Miles’ lighting are quite effective, as are Janet Pitcher’s costumes and Albee Alvarado’s hair and wig design).
There is death and rebirth, new love and estranged friends. By being forced to make choices, they all learn what’s most important in life and find their place in the world.
This exuberant slice of life draws us into these questions and problems, big and small. We not only observe the concerns, conflicts and relationships of an immigrant community, but for a fleet of 2.5 hours, in this comfortable space and impressive production, we become a part of it all.
- The San Diego Musical Theater production of “In the heightsruns through June 5 at their temporary space at 4650 Mercury Street in San Diego.
- Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($40-$75) are available at 858-560-5740 or sdmt.org
- Duration: 2h30.
- COVID precautions: the use of an indoor mask is strongly recommended
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.