Dallas — The Dallas Theater Center’s wonderful production of In the Heights lives up to the DTC’s 2017 Regional Theater Tony Award. This staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 award-winning musical shines on several accounts, notably a talented cast, choreography (by Rickey Tripp) and direction (by James Vasquez). It warranted an immediate and thundering standing ovation from a full house on opening night.
Miranda’s score and lyrics, and the structure of this story (book by Hudes), pull together a slice of life in the New York Latinx barrio of Washington Heights. This is a collective story of a working-class neighborhood inhabited by the dreams and aspirations of its Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants. This is to say that Caribbean folks come in all shades possible within humanity, and that our cultural inheritance comes predominantly from Africa and Spain (due to the decimation of its native population, the Taínos and the Caribe tribes by the Spanish conquistadores and their diseases). As such, the music, the cadence, and worldview of its people reflect this rich racial and cultural complexity — one clearly visible in this show.
Billed as family-friendly musical — not to mention the first prize-winning Broadway musical score dominated by rap and popular Latin rhythms — a sizable portion of the audience on opening night were high school-aged young adults, including a group from Joplin, Missouri, on a field trip.
With the exception of Abuela Claudia (played by Nancy Ticotín), Camila Rosario (Crissy Guerrero) and Kevin Rosario (David Lugo), who are Nina’s (Tiffany Solano DeSena) parents, the rest of the cast and ensemble of 20 are young, in their 20s to early 30s, as specified in the character description.
The cast of talented singers, displaying tremendous range, and beautifully agile dancers, take us through a few days of the everyday life of folks that go about their lives in and out of a busy corner of a bodega, a beauty parlor, an auto shop and a brownstone.
The bodega belongs to Usnavi (played by Xavier Cano, originally played by Miranda). His name is a play on “U.S. Navy,” a ship his parents saw sail by. He is in love with Vanessa (Marina Pires) who works at the local beauty salon and wants to get out of the barrio but doesn’t have the resources to do so.
Benny (Devin L. Roberts) works in Rosario’s Auto Shop and is thrilled to see Nina return from Stanford University, where she has been studying. He is the only character who doesn’t speak Spanish and is not Latino. The script states that he could be black, white, Asian or any other non-Latino; in this production he is black. Besides him and Graffiti Pete (who can be any ethnicity), the other named characters are described as Latino or Latina. DTC’s production has a gloriously mixed cast with body shapes as varied as they come in real life.
There is also the hair Salon Unisex where the over-the-top Daniela (the very funny Talia Thiesfield) and her assistant, Carla (Lorens Portalatin), work. Then you have Sonny (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez), a lazy cousin who helps Usanvi in the bodega, and Graffiti Pete (Michael Anthony Sylvester), whose street art, rap and break-dancing earns him the reputation of being the neighborhood talent. Lastly is Piragua Guy (Kevin Solís), who pushes a cart of shaved ice during the few days that the action takes place sometime, between July 3 and 5 in a sweltering New York City, which also happens to go through a black out (probably the one in 2003).
Just like the real Washington Heights, this is a bustling neighborhood.
It’s difficult to point out which voice is most powerful. Solís will steal your heart, and Ticotín will break it. Solis belts out a song that makes the walls shake.
I found myself empathizing with each of the specific situations in the play. For instance, Abue longs to be back in her native Cuba, in her neighborhood of El Vedado. As a Cuban immigrant, I lived with my parents’ constant longing for their homeland. This will resonate with anyone who has left their home country. One nitpicky observation: If Abue is Cuban, why is there a Puerto Rican flag on the brownstone by her balcony? This production does such a great job of being culturally specific, but this detail stands out.
As a university professor, I found Nina’s difficulties paying for her education all too familiar. The sacrifices her family makes on her behalf are quite familiar for many of my students. Nina’s desire to study and better herself is at the core of this show, which offers Latinx and young people of color a beautiful example of ¡Sí, se puede! (Yes, you can!). Miranda stuck by his guns when challenged by potential backers, and kept Nina’s struggles tied to her education, rather than some cliché notion of the pregnant or drug-addicted Latina.
Getting back to Benny and Nina’s relationship, it warmed my heart to see the challenges of a mixed-race couple portrayed honorably (yes, some Latinx folks harbor racial prejudice even though we are racially mixed). It was also a relief to see the lovers actually kiss on center stage without one of those quickie black-outs that accompany social situations that might be uncomfortable for some (and really, for whom?). Kudos to Ashley H. White (fight and intimacy direction) and Rui Rita (lighting design) for keeping it honest.
The choreography by Rickey Tripp is fresh and organic to the bodies dancing it, not just a series of counts. The break-dancing is good but left me wanting more. The salsa dancing is authentic and vibrant. The clave-heartbeat of throbbing salsa rings true, and it was evident that the dancers deeply feel the music. It’s an amazing feat to choreograph for so many bodies — sometimes all on stage at once — without a single snafu. Hats off to Tripp and the ensemble as well as to musical director Gary Adler, leading a band of nine, for a rich soundscape.
Director Vasquez pulls all of the elements of this team together seamlessly, with an end result that is enviably polished.
Dahlia Al-Habieli’s stage design opens up the action on all sides, which allows the actors/dancers to move in and out through the aisles. There is no separation between us (the audience) and them (the performers). Lex Liang’s edgy but realistic costumes reflect people’s lives in the hood.
For patrons who find the first act fast-moving and possibly overwhelming, the second act slows down a bit and offers ample opportunity to take it all in.
In the Heights, the precursor to Miranda’s even-more-groundbreaking hit Hamilton, will become a film in 2020. Its energy and vibrancy will make you want to get up and move. It’s a stunner, with big-hearted story that comes as we, as a nation, most need to look at each other and honor our differences and acknowledge the tremendous cultural and economic contributions of Latinx and people of color.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen dancing Argentine tango and is currently researching visions of the future in dramatic works.