Lin-Manuel Miranda may be the hottest playwright in America, but before his sensational Hamilton, college sophomore Miranda wrote a musical about a bodega owner and his struggling Latino neighbors. The Broadway production of In the Heights won 2008 Tony Awards for best musical, best original score, best choreography, and best orchestration. It also won a Grammy.
The masterful Moonlight production directed by James Vasquez is stunning on every level and fills the stage with jaw-dropping Latin and hip-hop choreography, soaring vocals, and a stellar orchestra, led by Elan McMahan.
Talk about timing. The show’s message of inclusion is especially powerful given current debates about immigration, and it has universal appeal.
Staging the hip-hop driven In the Heights is a multi-cultural leap for Moonlight, and a bold switch from The Little Mermaid and dancing seagulls this summer.
If you’re not familiar with Miranda’s style, expect a head-spinning adjustment. Some ears aren’t prepared for his mix of hip-hop, Latin pop and Broadway sing yelling. But it grows on you and keeps the story fresh. His lyrics are fragrant and addictive. Spanish idioms add extra spice.
William Cooper Howell plays Usnavi, the role Miranda had on Broadway.
“I am Usnavi and you prob’ly never heard my name, reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated, exacerbated by the fact that my syntax is highly complicated ‘cuz I emigrated…”
The loveable and awkward bodega owner got his odd name when his parents saw a U.S. Navy ship. He’s smitten with Vanessa, played by Michelle Cabinian, who has the longest legs in the county. She dreams of moving to the Village, far from her boozy mother.
Nina (Caitlyn Calfas) frets about telling her parents she’s lost her scholarship at Stanford. Even worse, she’s in love with Benny (Carleton Bluford), a hard working employee at her parent’s taxi company, and he’s black and can hardly speak Spanish. Their duets are lovely, and Calfas can belt out the tunes, but her voice is most rewarding when restrained.
Everyone adores Abuela Claudia, played by Samara Otero. She’s grandma to all and sings about paciencia y fe (patience and faith).
Miranda collaborated with book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and the thin story is flawed by a few awkward pauses and corny dialogue. Still, the vignettes ring true.
Anna Louizos’ set transports us to Nuevo York near the George Washington Bridge. Neighbors walk in and out of the hair salon and bodega as if stuck on an endless figure eight. The doors and signage look authentic. It’s no surprise that a lottery ticket becomes part of the plot twist.
In spite of their struggles and drama de telenovela, Heights is funny. Savor the snarky comic timing of Marlene Montes as Daniela the hairdresser, and Nadio Guevara as Carla, her dim and delightful sidekick. Their gossipy song “No Me Diga” is packed with veiled jokes and “chitty” accents. Also fine is Jonathan Arana as the bouncy Piragua Guy who is giddy about pushing his cart filled with real snowcones.
Choreography by Carlos Mendoza is an explosive thrill. Salsa sequences are a beautiful blur. Miranda changed how we approach musical theatre, and Moonlight presents a splendid production under the stars.