In the Heights is the fourth collaboration between the San Diego Repertory Theatre and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. While I am a graduate of SCPA and some of the cast from In the Heights are from SDSU, where I attend college, I promise that the following review is completely objective.
The new production of In the Heights is an energetic tribute to the power of home and community. Though the musical is told in an unconventional way, the sheer exuberance on stage and sunny story appeals to a big audience.
In the Heights examines the lives of a largely Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Washington Heights during the summer of 2008. The residents include a clever freestyle rapping bodega owner, Usnavi (Jai Rodriguez), an intelligent Stanford University freshman, Nina Rosario (Chelsea Diggs-Smith) and a salon worker, Vanessa (Danielle Mone Truitt) who desperately wants to move out of their barrio. All of the tales collide in surprising ways during the course of a few days.
Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse stages sequences of epic proportions with creative inventiveness. The biggest challenge Woodhouse has to face is the Act I climax, which includes grand choreography and complicated movement. Thanks to Woodhouse’s crisp pacing and Javier Velasco’s flashy choreography, the finale of the opening act is an impressive showstopper.
Woodhouse does not lose sight of the humanity featured throughout In the Heights, especially in Act II. The songs are generally far more intimate and there are plenty of touching and character based moments in this section of the theatrical piece.
Sean Fanning’s scenic design immediately dazzles as theatergoers enter the Lyceum Theatre. The set is full of attention to detail and subtle nuances, which is an unbelievable accomplishment in such a small space.
Quiara Allegria Hudes’s book has plenty of down to earth humor. A lot of the jokes are relatable, though they are about the different relationships between the people who live in this particular section of New York.
Rodriguez, best known for being the culture guide of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy proves himself to be quite the quadruple threat. Not only does he sing, dance and act, but Rodriguez also raps like nobody’s business.
He is one of the few actors that can capture the rawness of the original lead, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also responsible for the music and lyrics. Whether bonding with the matriarch of the neighborhood, Abuela Claudia (Susan Denaker) or awkwardly flirting with his crush, Vanessa, Rodriguez gives a deep and highly enjoyable performance.
As the female protagonist, Diggs-Smith has a likeable presence and upbeat personality that is perfect for her role. She sings her big solos beautifully and has sizzling chemistry with Desmond Newson who plays Nina’s love interest, Benny.
Every significant ensemble member ha a couple of moments to shine including Maurico Mendoza and Roxane Carrasco as Nina’s tough and loving parents as well as current SCPA student, Michael S. Garcia, as Usnavi’s goofy cousin, Sonny. All of them has at least a couple of big moments to stand out, which only adds to the appeal of In the Heights.
Most of the SCPA students are featured as ensemble members and musicians. Their dancing is exciting, polished, and they blend in well during some of the more memorable tunes including “96,000” and “Carnaval Del Barrio.”
The 13-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Andrew Bearden, flawlessly captures the numerous styles of music on display. The use of instruments such as trumpets, trombones and woodwinds produce a Broadway style sound that makes the melodies all the more catchy.
In the Heights is a successful opening to the San Diego Rep’s 38th season. The evening is a lively one with plenty of versatile talent on display. The messages about doing the right thing and the effects of a neighborhood on its residents are inspiring and sometimes bittersweet. Getting to see the first-rate cast and crew giving it their all made me proud to be an Aztec and graduate of SCPA.