Chance Theatre, Orange County’s 99-seat juggernaut company, typically stages a musical in the summer. It’s a good time to snag the current and recent students from the county’s theatre programs, particularly Cal State Fullerton’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program in musical theatre.
This summer’s entry is Lin Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In the Heights. It’s a big show for a relatively small space, but the cast and creative team are up to the challenge.
In the Heights was clearly a labor of love for Mr. Miranda. It was based on his experiences growing up in the Dominican barrio portion of Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Mr. Miranda’s score reflectedthe sounds he’d heard on the street, a potent mix of hip-hop, rap, salsa, merengue, with jazz and pop sprinkled in. Ms. Hudes’ book emphasized strong family ties (where they exist – where they don’t, there still seems to be a sense of “family” among friends and neighbors). If you saw Water by the Spoonful, her Pulitzer-Prize-winning solo effort, you’ll recognize earlier versions of similar themes in In the Heights.
The story centers on Usnavi de la Vega (Joshua Lopez), a fictionalized version of Mr. Miranda – and portrayed by him on Broadway. He owns a small bodega that serves as a community gathering spot (he serves café con leche, made Dominican style – enough said). Also in the neighborhood are the Rosario family – Kevin (Tony Sanchez), Camila (Rachel Oliveros Catalano), and their daughter, Nina (Julia Cassandra Smith) – who own a car service business and whose employee, Benny (Charles McCoy), is sweet on Nina. The shop next to Usnavi’s is a beauty salon owned by Daniela (Sonja Taylor) – who employs Vanessa (Chelsea Baldree) and Carla (Angeline Mirenda). Usnavi is sweet on Vanessa. Out on the street is a man (Julio Arroyo) with a push cart selling piraguas, a form of snow cone.
Overseeing the scene is Claudia (Candida Orosco), the local abuela, or grandmother. Claudia dispenses care and wisdom, but she also plays the lotto and doesn’t want to take her heart medication.
Act 1 sets up the characters and their relationships, as well as introducing what Alfred Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin: Usnavi learns that someone to whom he sold a lotto ticket has won a $96,000 first prize. Act 2 deals with the crises that affect each of the characters and considers how the lotto winnings could potentially affect each of the crises.
Chance has its “A Team” working on this production: artistic chief Oanh Nguyen is directing, crack choreographer Kelly Todd is filling the small space with energetic dancing, and Robyn Wallace leads a very tight 8-piece band and also helps the performers to shine, musically. Christina Marie Perez has designed a wealth of perfect-looking costumes, and Bradley Kaye’s scenic design incorporates what needs to be there to make everything work, though it all ends up being pretty crammed together. On the slight downside, I admired the washes in Martha Carter’s lighting design but I could have done without the follow-spots, which were placed at too low of an angle to be truly effective. Also, while Ryan Brodkin’s sound design had to be complicated, given a cast of 22 as well as the band, there were still enough sound cue errors on opening night to make a difference in the show’s overall performance quality.
What makes the show work, though, is the creative team’s careful casting and how the individual performers get to shine while functioning as an effective ensemble. There isn’t an Equity performer in the bunch – including the very effective stage manager, Courtny Greenough – but the show still comes off on a highly professional level. [php snippet=1]For example, Ms. Oliveros Catalano plays what could be the stereotypical role of a mother who is trying to hold her family together. She can be a nag in doing so, and eventually she breaks. “Enough,” the song she sings, not only serves to break the stereotype but Ms. Oliveros Catalano performs it so brilliantly and with such feeling that you have no doubt that her strong will is exhibited in a good cause.
Mr. Lopez provides an effective center to the action, and his ability with hip hop performance makes that style of music stand out in the score. Ms. Smith and Mr. McCoy emerge as an attractive romantic couple, and Ms. Smith carries a heavy singing duty with aplomb. The level of dancing is what you might expect from a choreographer who put West Side Story into an even smaller space (Chance’s former quarters) and had precision movement going on inches from the audience’s faces.
This is the third time I’ve seen In the Heights. The first time was the Broadway tour’s stop in Los Angeles, and I drove up primarily because Mr. Miranda was stepping into the role of Usnavi for a few performances. The second time was the San Diego REP’s deservedly-admired production last summer with Jai Rodriguez playing Usnavi. Both were big, expensive, and successful efforts. Chance’s production demonstrates that with sufficient care and creativity a smaller-scale In the Heights will work for regional and university theatres, too.
Correction to the program, which is linked below: Carlos Melgar has replaced Brian Cross on guitar.