Lin-Manuel Miranda Celebrates Slice of U.S. Immigrant Life
by Rosa Leither
Calling Center REP’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “In the Heights” merely “phenomenal” would be an understatement. I arrived with high expectations and left gushing at the star qualities of this incredible cast, set design, and choreography.
Under the direction of Nicholas C. Avila, the wildly entertaining and expertly executed songs steal the show. Full of Latin rhythm, colors, and flair, the cast belts out each song in perfect harmony—with impeccably choreographed dance numbers. And they do it all with such ease, it looks like year number two on Broadway.
The cast is impressively large and talented. Twenty performers fill the stage, recreating a vibrant Latin New York neighborhood, a packed dance club, and a touching funeral procession. They raise our spirits with their combined voices.
At the top of Manhattan, in Washington Heights, men and women fight for the basics—without much hope.
On a grungy street, on a sweaty summer’s day, struggling bodega owner Usnavi (magnetic Michel Alejandro Castillo) sells coffee and lottery tickets to his regulars. Meanwhile his little cousin Sonny (quirky Jacob Henrie-Naffaa) gets under his skin with hilarious quips.
Usnavi, named after his parents’ first sighting of a US Navy ship, delivers Lin-Manuel Miranda’s complex syncopation and inflection with talent and precision.
Gorgeously emotive songbird Cristina Hernandez plays neighbor Nina, who dropped out of Stanford and dreads telling her parents. She could not work two jobs and study.
The fun-loving Vanessa (sexy Laura Lebrón) tries to sweet talk her way into a lease for the umpteenth time, making her late for work at the hair salon.
Everyone has money problems. Nina’s parents, who run a limo and cab company, are drowning in debt. The hair salon must move to a better location.
Pushing his ice cart, Piragua Guy (comical, endearing Alex Alvarez) is thrilled when a days-long blackout leaves him as the only source of ice cream and shaved ice.
Abuela Claudia (warm, grandmotherly Michelle Navarrete) dreams of returning to Havana and relaxing on the beach.
They all aspire to the simple success of getting out.
When Usnavi discovers he sold a lotto ticket worth $96,000, it’s a big, big deal. Vanessa sings, “If I won $96,000, you would never see me again.” Although they are all living on the edge, these people are not broken. They are vibrant, full, strong characters full of grit, joy, and pride.
The underdog romance between Nina and Benny (compelling Dave J. Abrams) with his voice of liquid gold, is a true delight. Benny is an outsider among outsiders, a young Black man in love with the boss’s daughter. “You will never be good enough for her,” Kevin (Noel Anthony) spits at him.
The hard-fought connection between Usnavi and Vanessa is equally winning. They clumsily try to hide their true feelings, making them even sweeter.
Bravo! Center REP for this true masterpiece. “In the Heights” delivers a memorable and inspiring slice of real American life. Miranda’s music lifts us to heights of reflection and fulfillment. Don’t miss out!
“In the Heights” –music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Nicholas C. Avila, at Center REP, Lesher Center, Walnut Creek, California. Info: CenterREP.org – to June 24, 2023.
Cast: Míchel Alejandro Castillo, Laura Lebrón, Jacob Henrie-Naffaa, Cristina Hernandez, Noel Anthony, Natalie Amaya, Dave J. Abrams, Michelle Navarrete, Ashley Cowl, Deanalís Arocho Resto,
Tony Wooldridge, Alex Alvarez, Malia Abayon, Jordan Covington, John Diaz, Lillian Kurtz, Danielle Mendoza, Adora Nzewi, Dane Paul Andres, Kevin Gruwell, and Leilani Ford.
Banner photo: Míchel Alejandro Castillo (Usnavi), Dave J. Abrams (Benny), & citizens of Washington Heights. Photos: Kevin Berne