Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Magical Manhattan Musical
by Barry David Horwitz
At the top of “In the Heights,” our guide to Washington Heights, Usnavi (Rajiv Vijayakumar), spreads good cheer and hope, while running his little newsstand/sweet shop, and riding herd on his funny, warm-hearted helper Sonny (Jave Hernandez). Usnavi happily leads us to each person, each shop, working his own magic with Vanessa (India Kawar), whom he pursues with charming innocence. These are the warm and welcoming neighbors who have made a neighborhood, while living on the edge.
After getting the vibe from the talented, charismatic Usnavi, who tells us his story with great wit, watch for the woman who quietly holds the Latin community together. Abuela Claudia (Anita Viramontes) spreads her warmth and heart like sunshine over the lively commotion. Viramontes’ Claudia becomes the presiding spirit of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sprightly musical. Each person orbits around Claudia, in the heights; while sprightly Usnavi makes the connections for us.
When you see the charming, colorful cartoon-like set for “In the Heights” at Contra Costa Community Theatre, you know you are in for a passionate, youthful trip to the tip-top of Manhattan Island. In that part of Harlem known as Washington Heights, up above 150th Street and Broadway, you will find a wonderfully diverse community: Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American cultures mingling in a rich broth. CCCT’s production is so packed with young, talented, and enthusiastic stars that Miranda, the hip-hop master, and Quiara Alegria Hudes, the writer, must be proud of their sparkling.
When I was up there, up around 160th St. in New York in November, I had a ball. You could stop in at a diner at any time and eat delicious Dominican food—with lots of other nationalities’ taste treats, too. The buoyant, up-beat aura of the streets lets you feel you are in a Latin country, far from the skyscrapers and shows in mid-town.
“In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ode to his neighborhood, captures a big slice of the charm and warmth of the people in hip-hop, salsa, and romantic ballads. There’s the Car Rental Shop, facing the street, where worried parents Kevin and Camila (Mark J. Enea and Kristin Avila) work hard. They send their lively daughter Nina (Zinah Abraha) to Stanford with savings and loans. But Nina is forced to drop out because she cannot work two jobs and keep up her grades. All the U.S. issues are there—including a gentrifying neighborhood that is being bought up.
Nina’s melancholy and charm are expressed in her lovely songs with the independent and charming Benny (Dave J. Abrams), who make a sweet couple. But her parents oppose them—because he comes from a different race. Their Romeo and Juliet story produces sweet duets in “Benny’s Dispatch” and “Sunrise.”
Around the besieged couple, swirl the lively, hip-hop, bouncy dances and songs emerging from the store-fronts. From the beauty salon come Daniela, Carla, and Vanessa (Emily Alvarado, Rockey Basco, and India Kawar) who sing “No Me Diga” in front of their shop. Alvarado does a great job as the bossy, street-wise Daniela, leading her slinky, sleakly costumed crew.
“In the Heights” won the Tony Award for the Best Musical of 2008. This tone poem to a friendly neighborhood features inspired dancing by the Ensemble, the ups and downs of love, and the problems of an old community trying to hang on to its shops and businesses. Miranda uses the wonderful mix of races, languages, and cultures to weave a rich tapestry. Miranda was making tunes long before his “Hamilton.”
Add to the sizzling singing and dancing, the lively band, cleverly perched on a platform over the stage, and you have the recipe for a kaleidoscope of music and youthful energy.
In Washington Heights, people help each other out, while the Piragua Guy (Billy Raphael) sings his “Piragua” song—it’s a Latin treat. Director Ryan Mark Weible has made a great community celebration of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” in El Cerrito. The musical is set on the Fourth of July weekend in Manhattan—a perfect place to visit for CCCT’s cheer on the Fourth—or any weekend you want to celebrate with a constellation of young stars.
“In the Heights”: music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, directed by Ryan Weible, music direction by Armando Fox, choreography by Allison Paraiso, at Contra Costa Community Theatre, in El Cerrito, California, through Sunday, July 16, 2017. Info: ccct.org
Cast: Usnavi: Rajiv Vijayakumar, Abuela Claudia: Anita Viramontes, Benny: Dave Abrams, Vanessa: India Kawar, Nina: Zinah Abraha, Carla: Rockey Basco, Daniela: Emily Alvarado, Kevin: Mark Enea, Camila: Kristin Avila, Sonny: Jave Hernandez, Piragua Guy: Billy Raphael, and Graffiti Pete: Lucas Kiehn-Thilman.
Ensemble: Bianca Contreras, Alyssa Fredzess, Ronald James, Jeremiah Poti, Jessica Rager, Chanel Tilghman, Kris Anthony Williams, and Gwendolyn Woodhead.