REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which won Tony awards for Best Musical, Score, and Choreography in 2008, is completing a two-weekend run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza this weekend, and if you still haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to check it out, because this show, more than just about any other in recent years, brings musical theater into the twenty-first century. It does this by combining musical forms not seen on Broadway with traditional themes and characters in a winning and charming way that reinforces traditional Broadway concepts such as neighborhood, family, loyalty, and optimism. Cabrillo Music Theatre has put together a breathtaking production of the show that succeeds on a multitude of levels.
Although many people will impulsively compare In the Heights to West Side Story, with its depiction of Latin life in an urban metropolis, it bears more of a resemblance to Fiddler on the Roof, with its all-encompassing themes of tradition, family, and neighborhood. The opening number, “In the Heights,” in which bodega owner Usnavi introduces the characters, serves the same purpose as “Tradition” in Fiddler. Lano Medina, who is making his musical theater debut as Usnavi, has spent his career as a DJ and rapper, but exhibits charisma and likability that are evident from his first appearance on stage. The show incorporates rap as a sort of recitative, in place of dialog. Miranda does not overuse rap in the show, a wise decision, because it can get somewhat numbing if used too frequently. Medina’s work is seamless and his rapping shows that the style can be well-suited for an integrated storyline without exploitation.
The thrust of the play focuses on the Dominican-born residents of a New York Washington Heights neighborhood. Kevin, who owns a taxicab service company, is dismayed when his daughter Nina, the first in the family to attend college, returns from her first year at Stanford after being overwhelmed by trying to earn money to pay her tuition, resulting in the rescinding of her scholarship, and takes a leave of absence from school. We meet the other members of the neighborhood, including Usnavi’s ambitious and brash cousin, Sonny, matriarch Abuela Claudia, who raised Usnavi after his parents’ death, Vanessa, a sultry hair salon stylist and the object of Usnavi’s affection, and Daniela, the audacious owner of the salon. (Usnavi’s character name is derived from the first English words seen by his parents upon arriving in New York Harbor: the “U.S. Navy” on a ship in the port.)
There are other comparisons one can make with Fiddler. The “To Life” wedding ceremony, which is interrupted by a pogrom, is reflected in In the Heights by a street celebration (“The Club”) that is halted by a blackout and subsequent looting, destroying Usnavi’s business. As with Tevye’s refusal to bless his daughter Chava’s relationship with a Russian soldier, Kevin forbids Nina from having a relationship with Benny, who works for her father, but who is not of their race. Like Fiddler’s fictional hamlet of Anatevka, the barrio’s close-knit residents are threatened with dissolution when Kevin sells his business to pay for his daughter’s tuition, Daniela decides to move her salon business to the Bronx, and a dispirited Usnavi resolves to move back to the Dominican Republic.
Cabrillo’s production utilizes the original sets from the New York production and features a fourteen-piece orchestra, led by Brian Baker. The national tour of In the Heights featured a pared-down nine-piece orchestra, so the Cabrillo production marks the first time since the original New York run that the full score was utilized. The music is alternately vivacious, charming, and beautifully melodic, beginning at the outset with Nina’s exquisite ballad “Breathe,” which sets a convivial mood for the whole show. There is no antagonist in In the Heights, except for the financial difficulties the characters seem to share that prevent them from achieving their dreams.
As Nina, Ayme Olivo is attractive and high-spirited, possessing one of the many glorious singing voices in the cast. Tami Dahbura is simply stunning as Abuela Claudia, who shines in her solo “Paciencia y Fe” (“Patience and Faith”), in which she sings of her arrival in America as a young girl in 1943. Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco are wonderful as Nina’s parents, who are willing to sacrifice the taxi business they have nurtured for so many years to help support Nina’s return to college. Frank Authello Andrus Jr. plays Benny, who delivers a calypso-flavored traffic report while manning the taxi dispatch microphone. Rachae Thomas is dazzling as Vanessa, who sings the touching “Champagne” as a thank-you for Usnavi’s successful attempt to help her secure a dream apartment in Greenwich Village. Robert Ramirez is excellent as Sonny as is Anna Gabrielle Gonzalez as Daniela. Jose-Luis Lopez plays the sinewy tagger known as Graffiti Pete, contributing some especially angular and nimble movements during the dance numbers.
One unexpected highlight comes from the marvelous Jonathan Arana, who elevates a minor character, a street vendor known only as “Piragua Guy,” into one of the standout cameos of the show, serenading the neighborhood with a glorious tenor voice in the street song, “Piragua.”
One of the chief attributes of In the Heights is Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunning and inventive original choreography, which was meticulously replicated by director/choreographer Morgan Marcell. The cast’s movements are fascinating to watch; regular in their irregularity and endlessly inventive, ranging from herky-jerky robotic movements to graceful gliding about the stage. The dancing is so unique it’s almost as if no movement is ever repeated. It would be worth a second viewing just to focus on that one aspect of the production.
In the Heights is an extraordinary, enthralling musical that hits on all cylinders. See it before it leaves town Sunday. It plays this afternoon, this evening, and once on Sunday.