Debra Cardona stars as Abuela Claudia in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts production of In the Heights. Photo by Rich Ryan.
The biggest thing wrong with the Ordway’s production of In the Heights is that it’s only running for two weeks. This powerhouse production deserves a much longer run, with its stellar, popping dance scenes and boundless waves of musical and physical energy.
As you may have read, In the Heights is the first full-length musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the wunderkind singer-actor-composer-lyricist-playwright whose Hamilton currently reigns supreme on Broadway. Much like Jonathan Larson’s Tick-Tick-Boom and Rent, you can see many traces of the later/latter show in the earlier one. They are very different beasts, but there are more than a few songs that with some lyric changes seem like they could leap from one show into the other.
The plot of In the Heights needs no advance explanation, although with the fast-talking lyrics you might want to read through the libretto before the show. There’s a lot of exposition and the choice of accents and diction doesn’t exactly help words be heard clearly when the music is going so fast, the dancers are flying across the stage, and you’re looking at the action instead of the singers’ mouths…but you didn’t come for the plot. Since this is a “slice of life” musical set in a rapidly changing neighborhood, the adventure is in the unfolding, not the big picture backdrop. By all means, listen to the songs or read the lyrics before the show – it’ll all make much more sense when you see it unfold on stage.
The younger leading players in this hiphop drama include Usnavi (Justin Gregory Lopez), Nina (Aline Mayagoitia), Vanessa (Val Nuccio), and Benny (Stephen Scott Wormley). The older generations (and there are distinct generational lines in this story) is represented chiefly by Abuela Claudia (Debra Cardona), Kevin (Pedro R. Bayon), and Camila (Lara Trujillo). If you want a fun exercise during the show, keep track of the musical style of each character’s songs and diagram them afterwards – there’re some interesting correlations.
Two of the main storylines are fraught, would-be romances involving the younger leads. The respective pairs certainly have on-stage chemistry, although the final narrative makes you wonder if a sequel would find Usnavi and Vanessa happily together or long-since split. That actually doesn’t matter too much – this show lives in the moment, whether it’s tender and nostalgic like the stirring duet “Hundreds of Stories” or the seeming dozens of dance interludes that fly across the stage. Or the spotlight-stealing Adan Varela’s Piragua Guy, who more than makes up for the character’s generic name with a sweet tenor voice and smooth, lyrical moves.
This is a very bilingual show, but non-Spanish speakers won’t be that left out in the cold. Instead, they’ll pull more for Stephen Scott Wormley’s Benny as he tries to navigate a bilingual, tricultural taxi dispatcher’s office and woo the boss’s daughter. By the time we get to “Sunrise”, you’ll be shipping for Wormley and Aline Mayagoitia (as Nina) to just keep on singing, no matter how many shops have to get looted along the way. Co-directors Alberto Justiniano and James A. Rocco have put together a show that moves and vibrates like the classic Space Mountain ride at Disney world – you can catch your breath just as often as you need, but most of the time you’re drawn into a world of so much action that time flies by.
If last season’s West Side Story was dance-heavy, In the Heights is dance-dominant, as attested by the seven choreographers of various ranks listed in the program. You don’t have to listen at all to the show to be impressed, you could just sit back and watch the dancing – but if you put it all together, it’s a real thrilling rollercoaster of a ride.
In the Heights plays through September 24 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.