By Tom Dooney
January. Nights are cold, and days are full of dismal headlines. Happy. New. Year.
Relief is on hand for the rest of this week, while Shea's Performing Arts Centers plays host to In The Heights. This is a top notch touring company and you are almost certain to leave the theater as satisfied as the opening night audience, high from contact with this joyous show. To a person, the entire cast is sensational.
In The Heights is a lively portrait of the Caribbean community living uptown in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. Young love is tested. Old relatives are wise and sassy. The sweetness of old traditions conflict with the thrill of new ways. A sudden injection of money and hope takes everyone to the top of the world.... well, almost.
Sure, the story will remind you of any other of your favorite little-guy-makes-good dramas. We all, by the millions, tune into It's A Wonderful Life, not just for the story. It is the way it is told that impacts both brain and heart. What makes In The Heights Special is its lively, Hispanic flavor, the vastness of its heart and its unrelenting energy. Proof? I dare you to stay still in your seat during the big dance scenes. There is a smattering of Spanish in the dialogue and in the lyrics, but even if you are not a native speaker, you will be carried away by charm of the characters and their world.
Usnavi, has inherited his parents' corner bodega, selling café dolce and lottery tickets from morning to night. He introduces the audience to his customers, rapping the details of their dreams, as well as his own. Usnavi is in love with Vanessa, the beautician next door... but so is Sonny, his own cousin. Across the street, Kevin and Carla welcome their daughter Nina back home. They run Rosario's Cab & Limousine but she is their golden girl, the first in her family to go to college. Two dreams are shattered when the Rosarios learn that Nina has dropped out of Stanford and that she is in love with Benny, one of her father's drivers... black and non-Hispanic.
Busy? Yes. Emotional? Very. However this is no overburdened soap opera. Instead of the painful slowness of television, Quiara Alegría Hudes provides a seamless succession of short, insightful scenes. One character's story flows into each others'. Director Thomas Kail establishes a pace that is both steady and animated, like a parade. Lin Manuel Miranda is the primary creative force here. The show's concept, music and lyrics are credited to him. Together they have created a neighborhood of vivid, recognizable characters.
It was suitable that Miranda was the first to perform the role of Usnavi, the character who is the heart of the story. The role in this tour is played by Kyle Beltran. Beltran and all his co-stars on this tour provide detail, nuance and energy into their performances so that we cannot help but love each one of them. Again, this is a top notch company giving their all.
When, in the final moments of In The Heights, Usnavi shouts, "Merry Christmas, you old building and loan," we recognize he is an American dreamer of a new generation. Willing to take a losing bet, only to win more than was part of the original gamble. Miranda himself must be part of that kinship. He's a native of Washington Heights, but one suspects that his imagination lives in buoyant heights to enable him to devise a show with so much optimism and energy.
The opening night audience seemed to be rapt by all this, gasping at the most significant plot turns and moved by the music. Leave at home cynics who don't understand the difference between sentiment and genuine emotion, who feel deprived with an MDA share of irony. There must be some old Conan O'Brian tapes for them to watch while you head to Shea's.
In The Heights continues performances, daily with matinees on Saturday and Sunday, through January 31. It may be the middle of winter outside, but in the theater it is all July, summer romance fireworks and starshine. Take the opportunity to be part of this funny, sexy, playful, block party of a play.
Friday, Jan. 29th at 8PM
Saturday, Jan. 30th at 2PM & 8PM
Sunday, Jan. 31st, 2PM & 7PM.
Immediately following the above performances, there will be a patron basket collection for monetary donations for the Haiti relief efforts. Donations will be divided between the international Red Cross and the Save The Children Foundation.
In The Heights
is presented in Buffalo by Shea's and Albert Nocciolino.
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda; music and lyrics by Mr. Miranda; script by Quiara Alegría Hudes; directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Starring Kyle Beltran (Usnavi), Daniel Bolero (Kevin), Rogelio Douglas Jr. (Benny), Arielle Jacobs (Nina), Jose-Luis Lopez (Graffiti Pete), Genny Lis Padilla (Carla), Isabel Santiago (Daniela), Elise Santora (Abuela Claudia), Sabrina Sloan (Vanessa), Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Sonny) and Natalie Toro (Camila) with Sandy Alvarez, David Baida, Christina Black, Natalie Caruncho, Oscar Cheda, DeWitt Cooper III, Daniel Cruz, Wilkie Ferguson, Kristina Fernandez, Rayanne Gonzales, Dominique Kelley, Rebecca Kritzer, Morgan Matayoshi, Joseph Morales, April Ortiz, and Carlos Salazar. Scenic design by Anna Louizos, costumes by Paul Tazewell, Lighting by Howell Binkley