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In 2008 a musical called IN THE HEIGHTS exploded on Broadway to begin what would become a three-year run on the Great White Way that has been followed with countless tours of the production that continue now with the latest offering from Theatre Under the Stars right here in Houston. Directed by Nick DeGruccio, with Musical Direction from Darryl Archibald, the show features music and lyrics by creative young composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who now rules Broadway again with the reportedly sensational, “Hamilton,” a rap-flavored show known for the highest priced tickets in Broadway history.
Some readers may have seen various recent reports about the upcoming grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture on the Washington Mall. The CBS This Morning program just featured a “Notes of Change” segment with extensive descriptions of the museum’s recognition of “Hip Hop” music’s impact on American culture as it has evolved from such earlier black musical forms as hymns, jazz, blues, soul and rock & roll, while dating the rap music evolution back to New York’s South Bronx neighborhoods of the late 1970’s. In one recent interview the famed rapper, Ice-T, declared: “We realized this beat was a vehicle for just straight street poetry.”
That concept is perfectly demonstrated here as Mr. Miranda’s In the Heights weaves its musical tale of three days in the world of the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The attractive and appealing set (scenic designer, Anna Louizos) imparts a warm and embracing golden glow to the brick apartment buildings that tower over the assorted local shops surrounding the street below.
A bright blue sky and the east tower of the George Washington Bridge loom in the distance. The central character, Usnavi (Anthony Lee Medina) is our likable narrator throughout the story. He is a hard-working young man who owns a small bodega. He’s very much in love with beautiful Vanessa (Chelsea Zeno), and while his parents died years earlier, he has been much cared for since by the neighborhood’s honorary matriarch, the elderly and beloved, Abuela Claudia (Rayanne Gonzalez).
The lively and sensational title song opens the show with the sparkling and free-wheeling dancing of the ensemble that will punctuate scene after scene. (Choreographer, Jose Luis Lopez).
We meet the lovely Nina Rosario (Michelle Beth Herman) a neighborhood hero because she has been a student at Stanford University. But her Mom and Dad (played by April Ortiz & Danny Bolero) are about to learn the college work load was too much for their daughter and she has dropped out.
Nina is in love with Benny (Blaine Krauss), a young man employed by her father in the family car and limousine service. But she is distraught at her scholastic failure, and soon her parents will clash dramatically over their daughter’s future, and her father will oppose her relationship with Benny. When Miss Herman sings songs like the pleasantly melodic, “Breathe,” and the Act Two duet with Mr. Krauss during the romantic warmth of “Sunrise,” we are in the presence of a wonderful voice. But there are so many fine voices in this cast. Mr. Bolero is sensational as Nina’s father sings, “Inutil,” describing his desperation at not being able to finance her education. Miss Ortiz brings explosive brilliance to the savage, “Enough,” as Nina’s mother demands an end to family squabbling about finances. Then there is perky fun at the neighborhood beauty salon as Vanessa joins shop owner, Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and their colleague, Carla (Alicia Taylor Tomasko), for the gossipy delights of “No Me Diga.” Then the full company delivers a dazzling “96,000,” as it is learned that Usnavi has sold someone a winning lottery ticket in that amount, but I refuse to disclose that winner here. Enter the feisty Abuela Claudia, and boy does Miss Gonzalez hit one out of the park with her impressive voice during the powerful, “Paciencia y Fey” (Patience and Faith).
Act One closes with an eye-popping nightclub scene with the dancing beautifully illuminated by gorgeous pastel lighting (designer, Steven Young). There are pleasant supporting performances from Philippe Arroyo as Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny, and Jonathan Arana as the singing Piragua Guy who sells flavored ices on hot days. Miss Santiago leads one of Act Two’s many highlights with a sexy, sassy and fun-filled “Carnaval Del Barrio” that evolves into what looks like a joyous conga line with the full cast on stage. There’s a poignant bit of bad news in Act Two as well, but to quote the immortal bard, “All’s well that ends well.” Why not come see for yourself? But keep in mind, unless you are a rapper yourself, it is unlikely you will be able to catch every word of song and dialogue from the amazing rapid-fire delivery of Mr. Medina and other members of the cast.
IN THE HEIGHTS continues through September 25th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at www.TUTS.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).