REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
It never ceases to amaze me what young talent can do given a near-impossible task and a short amount of time. Director Brian McDonald has worked a minor miracle, assembling a vibrant cast of gifted teenagers in an explosive production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. The show, which is being performed at the Rubicon Theatre Company through Saturday, August 13, is part of the theatre’s Musical Theater Intensive summer youth program, which utilizes the talents of teens from high schools in the Ventura and Los Angeles County areas.
After seeing the show, it’s hard to believe what the cast managed to do in just two-and-a-half weeks. During intermission, McDonald told me that the cast already knew most of the songs before they even started rehearsals. Miranda’s score is a spicy estofado (a Spanish stew) consisting of a blend of hip-hop, salsa, and traditional Broadway balladry, with soaring melodies spiced by exotic Latin rhythms. As in last year’s production of West Side Story, the show’s cast maneuvers well around the small Rubicon stage, spilling out into the aisles and even doing small scenes in the confining balconies above the audience.
In the Heights is this generation’s Fiddler on the Roof, depicting a society that is bound together by its ethnicity, its traditions, and its inhabitants’ love for one another. Whereas Fiddler had the menacing Russian Cossacks to put down any attempts at happiness or success, there really is no antagonist in In the Heights, except for the ever present struggle for money that seems to thwart everyone’s plans for the future.
In the story, Nina is the first in her family to have gone to college (Stanford), but has forfeited her scholarship after being unable to keep her grades up. In order to pay her living expenses, she became overburdened trying to make ends meet and has had to drop out. Her parents, Kevin and Camila, run a faltering taxi service.
The action in In the Heights takes place in New York’s Washington Heights, a neighborhood consisting predominantly of people of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban heritage. The show is the latest in a long line of prestigious Broadway musicals (West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Promises, Promises, among others) that uses neighborhoods of New York City as a backdrop.
Usnavi, the story’s narrator and central figure, operates a one-man neighborhood bodega. In the prologue, Usnavi introduces us to the members of the barrio using hip-hop as recitative (“In the Heights”). Usnavi is played with great likability and presence by Jesse Graham, a business marketing student at Cal State Northridge who is also an active musician and songwriter, performing with various music groups in Ventura County in addition to having acted in shows like Oklahoma! and Les Miserables. The role of Usnavi is the glue that holds In the Heights together, just as he is the emotional hub that the barrio’s habitues gravitate towards.
El Camino High School graduate Miranda Mize plays Nina with a sunny personality despite her dejection at having to return home a failure. Hers is one of the many superb voices on display in In the Heights, as she sings the waltz “Breathe,” the show’s opening number. Its lilting melody belies the fact that Nina is dreading to tell her parents the bad news about her scholarship, despite being the one who everyone in the Heights expected to succeed.
In the Heights is chock-full of fabulous solos by its many vivid characters. Gabriel Lemus, who recently graduated from St. Bonaventure High School, plays Kevin, and sings “Inutil” (Useless), in which he decries the fact that he cannot support his own business, much less support his daughter’s dreams of graduating from college. His wife, Camila, played with power and verve by seven-year Rubicon veteran Rebecca Graham, sings “Enough,” as she puts the brakes on a family fight that stems from Nina’s close friendship with Benny, Kevin’s employee who is not Latino (shades of Tevye and Chava in Fiddler).
Mikayla Sullivan is beautifully affecting as Abuela in her Act I solo, “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith), representing all of the positive optimism of the neighborhood. Anna Demaria, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, is one of the few actors in the cast whose own cultural background matches that of her character, Daniela, the saucy salon owner who loves to gossip about everyone and everything. In one of the smaller roles, the charismatic Abel Alderete plays the Piragua Guy, who sings the intoxicating “Piragua,” which harkens back to the street cries of Porgy and Bess.
The handful of duets are just as lovely as the solos, especially those featuring Mize and the inordinately talented Gabriel Nunag as Benny. Nunag, who will be a senior at the Health and Science Academy at Pacifica High School, has been impressing Ventura County theater audiences for a few years now, since his promising debut in Young Artists Ensemble’s production of Aladdin Jr. a year-and-a-half ago. His sister Jenikka also has a bright future in theater, having received Santa Barbara’s Indy Award for Best Leading Teen Actress for her portrayal of Kim in Miss Saigon. Jenikka plays Vanessa, a stunning beauty who works in Daniela’s salon and has an eye for Usnavi; they sing the charming “Champagne” toward the end of Act II.
Many of the highlights of the show are the invigorating celebratory group numbers, featuring a lithe ensemble of singers and dancers that brought excitement and vivaciousness to songs like “The Club/Fireworks,” “96,000,” and “Carnaval del Barrio” and even the somber but beautiful “Alabanza.”
Key secondary roles are admirably played by the other members of the cast, including Nico Wicklin (Graffiti Pete), Erika Cook (Carla), and Daniel Brackett (Sonny). The vibrant look and sound of the show is the result of the prodigious talent and efforts of musical director John Enrico Douglas, choreographer Carolanne Marano, scenic designer David King, hair/makeup designer Danielle White, lighting designer Nick McCord, sound designer Kenny Hobbs, and costume designer Amber Zepf.
In the Heights plays through Saturday, August 13 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.