"In the Heights": Uptown Latin Flavor Melds with Small Town Gossip
Director James Vásquez's "In the Heights" Brings Rhythm, Vivacity, and an Infectious Spirit to Vista's Moonlight Amphitheater
If Magical Realism got its start in Columbia, then the American Dream found its home in the barrio of the Moonlight Amphitheater. With an outdoors setting to match an outdoors set, and an arresting cast to deliver Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ("Moana," "Hamilton") Tony-Award winning lyrics, Moonlight’s season-closing “In the Heights” doesn’t transport us to Washington Heights, rather it brings the Heights to us.
The tale is simple enough— immigrants and their first-generation families try to create a brighter future in New York's Washington Heights, their stories intertwined through work-place gossip, morning café con leche, and latin cultures. There's Usnavi (played by the compelling and good-hearted William Cooper Howell), whose realist but positive outlook on life makes him a barrio favorite. His cousin, Sonny (Nicholas Alexander, hoppy and coquettish), and his Abuela Claudia (the remarkable Samara Otero) are Usnavi's lifeline; Sonny is the sugary and spirited sole employee of his mama y papí bodega, and Abuela Claudia's faith and gusto unfurls throughout the "Heights" community. Meanwhile, the Rosario family deals with the shock of finding out that their only daughter, Nina (Caitlyn Calfas, sweet and hesitant) not only dropped out of Stanford, but is also falling in love with the very english-speaking and very not-hispanic Benny (the show-stealing Carleton Bluford), Kevin Rosario's best car shop employee. When Usnavi's bodega sells the winning lotto ticket — and to Abuela Claudia nonetheless — the entire barrio relishes in the possibility of a future where finances don't tie them down and dreams become reality.
Director James Vásquez, whose previous production at Vista's Moonlight was last summer's "The Addams Family," knew exactly what he was doing with his late summer latin soiree, infusing this production with zeal, grit, and humor. It becomes evident, even from the first number, that this is a proud and hard-working group of people who don't let hardships keep them down. Usnavi raps, "Everybody's got a job / Everybody's got a dream," and the entire ensemble beckons in agreement. It's a culturally diverse playground and it's this diversity and subsequent performances that ultimately ties each character together in a storyline otherwise swallowed with subplots.
Caitlyn Calfas' performance of Breathe is a searing reflection of generational expectations. She portrays first-generation college student Nina with a dash of American Ferrara circa "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," an over-achiever who just wants to make her loved ones proud, but also fills her with the doubt that comes along with first-time failure. Her budding romance with Carleton Bluford's Benny is a refreshing reflection of modern love, and any scene shared between Bluford and Calfas is intoxicating to watch. This could be due to Bluford's truly transcendent portrayal as the scrappy and buoyant Benny. Bluford easily steals every scene he's in, and delightfully so, as he radiates charisma whether via lyrics or dialogue. Regarding lyrics, however, Michelle Cabinian's portrayal as girl-next-door Vanessa is lackluster, and her vocals erred on the grating end. It's a shame, because Howell's Usnavi is clearly head-over-heels for Vanessa, who to the audience, is merely ungrateful and insincere. His bashful behavior and awkward humor towards Vanessa (he's really bad at opening champagne) is a saving grace in what would otherwise be dull background noise.
Regardless, Vásquez has developed a clear camaraderie between his actors, and the chemistry they have for one another only helps to strengthen the show's themes of family and heritage. This chemistry, along with the many scenes of wildfire energy, rich Hispanic flavors, and laughable moments (Jonathan Arana is riotous as Piragua Guy, the local shaved ice vendor), make "In the Heights" irresistible. During an interactive scene where the cast sings with pride for their nationality, waving their respective flags high, Howell's Usnavi urges a lukewarm Sunday night audience into cheers and celebration.
It's hard not to get involved, as the open air theatre allows for vocal expression and reactions that may be considered inappropriate in a traditional setting. Vásquez and scenery designer Anna Louizos use this outside environment to their advantage, utilizing the very edges of the stage with graffiti, trashcans, and subway signs. The set becomes a part of the family, and seeing Usnavi's quaint bodega vandalized or Rosario's sign taken down is painful; the barrio is home. Louizos transforms a vague New York into a specific and separated little community, not unlike your own small hometown, except this one has a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and a friendly neighborhood Graffiti Pete (Sebastian Montenegro).
In fact, Moonlight's production of "In the Heights" makes you feel not only a part of this thriving and surviving community, but prouder to be a part of your own community. Nearly ten years after its 2008 debut, “In the Heights” is as relevant as ever, amidst a country befallen with a Neo-Nazi resurgence, debilitating immigration plans, and a cyber civil war between the American underbelly and its liberal counterparts. Vista has bequeathed to us a message that can relate to anyone, whether you're an immigrant, from a broken family, or experiencing change — as Abuela Claudia would say, have patience and faith. Moonlight's "In the Heights" will pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way with a little sweet coffee and a lot of steadfast faith in yourself, your roots, and your dreams.
"In the Heights"
Music and Lyrics LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
Book QUIARA ALEGRÍA JUDES
Conceived by LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
Director JAMES VÁSQUEZ
Choreographer CARLOS MENDOZA
Musical Director and Conductor ELAN McMahan
"In the Heights" runs September 13 - September 30 @ 7:30pm
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Moonlight's website here.