“Lights up on Washington Heights,” Alejandro Campillo ’21 raps as Usnavi de la Vega in the opening number of this weekend’s staging of “In the Heights.” As Campillo continues the song, the stage around him comes alive as the Morse Crescent Theater morphs into a vibrant, bustling Manhattan neighborhood.
Directed by Isabel Mendia ’18 and produced by Sabine Decatur ’18 and Jacob Rodriguez ’18, “In the Heights” is a Tony award-winning musical penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) and Quiara Alegría Hudes. The show follows several stories within the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights, from that of Usnavi (Campillo), a small bodega owner, to Nina Rosario (Alaina Anderson ’21), a first-generation college student — “the one who made it out” — who drops out of Stanford in her first year. By telling a collection of diverse narratives, “In the Heights” explores socioeconomic struggles and the “it takes a village” dynamic, while celebrating communities of color and Latinx cultural identity. At its very core, the show centers around the idea of community and how people come together: both in joyous, upbeat moments and in somber, trying times.
In no other element of this production is the theme of community so clearly conveyed as in the powerful ensemble performance. As the show begins, it’s easy and natural to want to label a handful of characters as scene-stealers — Noelle Mercer’s ’21 spunky Sonny, Sarah Sotomayor’s ’21 saucy Daniela, Aïssa Guindo’s ’21 Piragua guy — but as the narrative progresses, it becomes more and more evident that such a task is impossible. Every single cast member shines brightly and beautifully.
That’s not to say that every cast member is exactly the same; saying so would overlook the unique talents each member brings to the stage. Campillo’s characterization of Usnavi achieves the perfect level of puppy-dog adorableness while still retaining the spunk that makes the character compelling. Angel Osorio Pizarro ’19 offers a complex, realistic performance as Nina’s father Kevin Rosario, conveying the conflict of his character with his rich voice in “Inutil.” Both Anderson, who plays Nina, and Elayna Garner ’20, who plays Vanessa, fill the stage with their powerhouse voices every time they open their mouths.
The list could easily continue. But despite the talents of each individual, the cast as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. There are very few solo numbers in this show, and though each of the handful is performed beautifully, the life of the piece comes from its ensemble numbers. Every single relationship in this show, whether filial, platonic or romantic, is full of life and emotion, bringing a potent and palpable energy to each performance that makes the audience in the small theater feel like part of a neighborhood. Spanning from the sassy interactions and peppy harmonies between the hairdressers (Sotomayor, Garner, and Ariela Zebede ’19) and Nina in “No Me Diga,” to the heartwarming relationship between Usnavi and his abuela (Camila Guiza-Chavez ’19) that peaks in “Hundreds of Stories,” the dynamics between characters are full and meaningful. As the community comes together to mourn a loss in “Alabanza,” the ensemble reaches its full potential and delivers a moving, goosebump- and tear-inducing performance.
The show’s other elements subtly but skillfully bolster the ensemble in a way that further emphasizes the show’s main theme. The set is minimalistic — a few street signs, a trash can, Usnavi’s bodega, some salon stools — but effective, creating a sense of setting while still highlighting that people, rather than possessions, are the core of the neighborhood. Skillfully timed lighting changes enhance the show’s emotional tone without drawing too much attention to the changes themselves.
One element that could afford to draw slightly less attention to itself, however, is the pit. While the instrumental accompaniment is a crucial element of the show and the musicians performed flawlessly in this production, the music’s instrumental elements often overpower the cast’s vocal performance and hinder the audience’s ability to hear the show’s meaningful lyrics.
Aside from the strength of the ensemble and its many complements, other forces still went into production that created a superb final product. One in particular was the use of movement. Not a single note or beat of Miranda’s upbeat melodies and rhythms went to waste; every number that brought the stage to life musically also livened it visually with interesting, engaging choreography. This was especially apparent in “Blackout” — the most proto-“Hamilton” of all of the musical’s numbers, and one that calls for a certain level of organized chaos, which this production tackled seamlessly.
All in all, much of the beauty of this production comes from striking the right balance. During ensemble numbers, the stage was full, but never appeared crowded. Performances were large and luminous without being in-your-face. As a whole, the show managed to be emotional without feeling sappy, and energetic without being overwhelming.
Both reservations and waitlist spots for this weekend’s shows — evening performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., along with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. — are completely sold out. If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket to see this high-energy celebration of community, please know that it’s not worth missing. And if you are ticketless and somehow able to track down a reservation or waitlist spot through the black market or some other shady back channels, it might just be worth it.
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org