It may be jumping the gun to praise a show still in previews, but In the Heights at the Westport Country Playhouse is one of the best musicals the Playhouse has done in years, and in fact one of the best musicals I have seen in any venue. Let me suggest you book tickets while you can before even reading the rest of the review, because it is sure to sell out.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning musical (with book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) about life in Washington Heights grabs you from the very first number, the 12-minute “In the Heights” and never lets you go. His lively, Hispanic-inflected jazz score along with the stunning choreography by director Marcos Santana is outstanding from beginning to end, with Daniel Green’s 10-piece brassy orchestra keeping the music moving.
In his program notes, Miranda explains that after having played Bernardo in school and seen other contemporary shows that depicted Hispanics as violent, he was determined to write a piece that shows people growing up and living in an Hispanic neighborhood, in this case Washington Heights, which lies between 155th and 190th Streets in New York. The street sign on the set says W 181st St.
The story revolves around Usnavi (a superb Rodolfo Soto), a young bodega proprietor who runs the shop along with his young cousin Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols). Both live with Abuela Claudia (the powerful Blanca Camacho) who raised Usnavi after his parents died. In case you might not think that “Usnavi” is a Spanish name, you are right. We learn in the second act that he was named for the phrase on a boat his parents passed before they landed in the U.S. (US Navy).
The set looks much like that area in New York, with some graffiti and several shops, a beauty shop run by Daniela (Sandra Marante), with Carla (Amanda Robles) and pretty, young Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron, who is Usnavi’s love interest), and Rosario’s Car Service, where Kevin (Rony Chiroldes) and his strong-willed wife Camilla (Doreen Montalvo) dispatch drivers, assisted by Benny (Gerald Cesar), and ambitious black man who does not yet speak much Spanish. He is trying to learn it from the drivers so he can take over the dispatching duties. He later remarks that he has learned that Puerto Rican Spanish and Dominican Spanish have completely different swear words.
The story begins moving when Kevin and Carla’s daughter Nina (the outstanding Didi Romero) returns from her first year at Stanford, only to eventually reveal that she has lost her scholarship. Benny and Nina reconnect and are soon in love, and sing beautifully together, especially in “Sunrise.” And meanwhile, Usnavi gets Sonny to ask Vanessa out for him, and they soon connect as well.
While there is some dialog throughout, much of the show is really the songs, dancing, costumes and lighting that keep the show moving and thrilling from beginning to end. And I must especially praise the Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), who pushes a Piragua cart (flavored shaved ice) and sings in a fabulous tenor voice throughout.
This nearly all Equity 18-member cast, several of whom were in the original Broadway production, produce one of the most professional, high energy shows the Playhouse has ever presented and to see how these amazing singers and dancers tell the story of The Heights, you simply must see this excellent production. Some neighbors in the audience noted that this production was actually better than the Broadway production. Don’t miss it!
In the Heights plays at the Westport Country Playhouse April 23 through May 11, now extended through May 19th.!
Above, front row (L–R): Randy Castillo, Nina Victoria Negron, Amanda Robles, Tony Chiroldes, Edward Cuellar, Alison Solomon. Second row: Jonté Jaurel Culpepper, Marco Antonio Santiago, Melissa Denise Lopez, Sarita Colon, Blanca Camacho, Rodolfo Soto, Sandra Marante, Doreen Montalvo, Gerald Caesar, and Didi Romero. Back row: Ezequiel Pujols, Paul Aguirre, director/choreographer Marcos Santana, and music director Daniel Green. Photo by S. Emerick