KALAMAZOO – To close out its “Outsider”-themed season, Kalamazoo College has picked the Pulitzer-nominated, Tony-winning musical In the Heights, conceived by future Hamilton star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and a score by Miranda.
Set in New York’s culturally diverse Washington Heights neighborhood, the show unfolds over the course of three days in July, during which dreams come true, priorities are rearranged, lives end, romances begin and Independence Day celebrations inspire most of the residents to take stock of where they stand in the Land of the Free.
It’s an inspirational reminder that you can’t spell “community” without “unity,” and Hudes’ script and Miranda’s melodies evoke the urban atmosphere so vividly, you can practically feel the summer heat and smell the aromas of exotic dishes mixed with the breezes off the Hudson.
It’s a piece driven by its sharply drawn characters. Directors Alejandra Bucio, Aidan Ives Johnson and Ed Menta bring the setting excitingly to life with thoughtful staging that allows the actors room to explore these generally dynamic personalities. Choreographer Heather Mitchell has put together a zesty combination of jazz and hip-hop moves that the cast executes smoothly and stylishly.
But In the Heights is also heavy with songs – it’s practically an operetta – and that fact poses formidable challenges for some of the cast, a few of whom approach their numbers timidly and with visible uncertainty, as if they are still working out the rhythms and phrasing. That leads to volume and pitch problems in some of the ensemble pieces, such as the uneven opener, “In the Heights,” and the muddled “Piragua.” At times on opening night, the chorus was so low-key that the band threatened to drown them out (and the musicians, while generally strong, hit a few audible bumps themselves in the first performance).
However, insecurity is not a problem for Alejandro Antonio Jaramillo, who brings expert comic timing and warmth to Usnavi De La Vega, the bodega operator who fantasizes about going back to the Dominican Republic and wrangling a date with ambitious hair salon employee Vanessa (Ranya Perez), not necessarily in that order. Wiry and loose-limbed Jaramillo is a joy to watch in the dance sequences, but he truly excels when he wraps his quicksilver tongue around Miranda’s rapid-fire raps, which he delivers with snap and gusto.
As Nina Rosario, “the one who made it out,” scoring a scholarship to Stanford, Stephany Perez radiates youthful vulnerability and disillusionment in a tender and resonant performance. Just back from her first year at school, Nina dreads telling her parents and friends that she fell into an all-too-familiar trap: She spent so much time working two jobs to pay for her education that she didn’t have enough energy left to put into her studies. Benny (Quincy Isiah), an employee at the car-service company owned by Nina’s parents, helps console Nina, but when it becomes apparent they will be more than friends, Nina’s class-conscious father, Kevin (Bryan Lara), bluntly tells Benny he’s an unworthy suitor.
Unsurprisingly, Dad’s disapproval propels Benny and Nina into each other’s arms. But, at least on opening night, the chemistry between Isiah and Stephany Perez did not extend to their duets; their voices clashed more often than they meshed, making two of Miranda’s prettiest tunes, “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down,” sound more like vocal duels than elegant love songs.
The role of the chic, self-assured and relentlessly gossipy salon owner Daniela begs for a larger than life presence, and Karishma Singh has sizzle and spirit to spare, as she proves in the amusing “No Me Diga” and the ebullient “Carnaval Del Barrio,” the show’s most energized and invigorating production number. Charismatic and beguiling Yaneli Soriano is also well-cast as the noble neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, who shares her kindness, wisdom and cooking with one and all. Natalie Vazquez’s sometimes clueless Carla and Carlos Arellano’s sweetly lovesick Sonny provide delightful comedic moments that greatly enhance the production.
Near the end of In the Heights, Usnavi, Daniela, Nina and their neighbors realize they may have to find their futures beyond Washington Heights. Usnavi wonders if gentrification is just around the corner. “We gotta move on,” he sings, “but who’s gonna notice we’re gone?” By this point, though, these full-blooded, fascinating characters have made such strong impressions on the audience that they are sure to be remembered for quite some time.
In The Heights
1200 Academy St., Kalamazoo