Long before smash theatrical hit Hamilton was a glint in his eye, Lin-Manuel Miranda announced his talent onstage, both as actor and creator, with In the Heights. The show, set in his hometown neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, now opens the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe season, and it’s uncannily timely.
While In the Heights, like Hamilton, relates to the immigrant experience in America, this is a highly personal work, centered on the lives and dreams of the mostly Latino members of that neighborhood, whom Miranda regards with much affection. Some are, like Miranda, of Puerto Rican descent, which makes the show’s Act I closer, “Blackout,” in which the cast sings of being “powerless,” all the more poignant in light of the island’s current condition after Hurricane Maria.
But In the Heights is far from a grim piece of theater. It brims with life and energy from the first number, where main character Usnavi, portrayed by WBTT regular Michael Mendez, introduces us to the characters that dwell on his streets.
Usnavi himself runs a small bodega with the sometimes doubtful assistance of his cousin, Sonny (Troy D. Wallace). It’s located beside a car service owned by Kevin (Matthew Curtis) and Camila (Emily Barnash) Rosario, whose daughter Nina (Nina Negron) has just returned home from a disappointing freshman year at Stanford University. On the other side of the bodega is a salon run by the sassy Daniela (Renata Eastlick) and her born-again assistant Carla (Khadija Sallet), with eye-catching manicurist Vanessa (Marissa Buchheit), who longs to escape her home and her hard-drinking mother.
Nina has been the bright hope of the neighborhood, the one to get out, but now she’s unsure of her future and finds herself drawn to Benny (Brian L. Boyd), her father’s African-American employee, an attraction he returns. Meanwhile, Usnavi pines for Vanessa, and plans for the day he and the woman he considers his abuela (grandmother), played by Maite Uzal, escape to the Dominican Republic of his late parents.
It’s a familiar enough type of story, but in the hands of Miranda, who conceived the piece and wrote its music and lyrics (a mix of Latin rhythms, rap and ballads), choreographer-director Jim Weaver, music director Thomas Craig Buckley and the talented cast (Quiara Alegria Hudes is credited with the book), In the Heights is a buoyant, frequently touching show.
It’s a demanding one for WBTT as well, with a large cast and a fast pace. But on opening night the company proved up to the challenges, whether technical or performance related.
Mendez is the engaging center of the show, and he’s always watchable and on point. But he’s joined by actors, some new to the WBTT stage, with strong presences and voices, capable of shifting from drama (“Inutil”) to comedy (“No Me Diga”) to sizzling (“The Club” and “Carnaval Del Barrio”). Weaver’s choreography is outstanding and fits the music and the mood, too.
Castwise, it’s really a show without a weak link, but I’d single out Uzal (playing a character quite a bit older than herself) for the power of her “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith),” Barnash for the authority of her big moment as a long-suffering mother with “Enough,” Negron and Boyd for the yearning duets of their young lovers, and Buchheit for her poplike delivery. All the numbers are well supported by the band, and overall the acting ensemble renders local flavor that complements the leads richly. David Walker’s character-appropriate costumes and Donna and Mark Buckalter’s easily functional set design deserve kudos, too.
In the Heights continues at WBTT through Nov. 19; for tickets call 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.