Saturday, 22 June 2019 08:42

Review: ‘In the Heights’ soars with incredible vibrancy and talent

Written by  Marin Heinritz
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In the second act of Grammy- and multiple Tony-award winning Broadway musical “In The Heights” (the show that launched Lin-Manuel Miranda, star creator of “Hamilton”) the Spanish word “alabanza” is introduced as a song.

In English, the word means “raise it up to God.”

That, in a nutshell, is what this joyous and expansive show does, in every possible way.

“In The Heights” raises up Washington Heights, the northernmost neighborhood of Manhattan, and the stories that emerge from this vibrant Latino community that has a long history of housing various immigrant communities, from Irish and Jewish to Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican, among others. It celebrates all its cultural influences, a miraculous mash-up that is uniquely American, and explores the particular challenges this neighborhood faces and turns them into a touching universal story about belonging and finding home.

And Mason Street Warehouse, in its current production and 17th season opener, clearly raises up the astounding promise of this beautiful show with explosive energy, tremendous heart and unbelievable talent.

From music to dance to design to overall performances, love and Latin rhythms and heat are the driving forces here, and under exquisite direction from Kurt Stamm, it’s a knockout.

A stellar cast with electric chemistry brings to life the personalities inhabiting a city block on the cusp of change. A bodega run by earnest Usnavi (Spiro Marcos), is the lynchpin of their community, and he shyly longs for feisty Vanessa (Michelle Beth Herman); there’s a cab company next door to the bodega run by the Rosarios (Benjamin Perez and Celina Polanco), a Puerto Rican family whose hopes and dreams are pinned on daughter Nina (Nina V. Negron), a first-generation college student who comes home from Stanford to deliver the news that she’s flunking out, and to make matters worse, sparks begin to fly with Benny (Lamont Walker II), her father’s employee whom they’d prefer not welcome into the family. The ladies in the salon (Shadia Fairuz, Kristin Rebera) keep everyone coiffed and the gossip rolling; and Usnavi’s abuela (Tami Dahbura) is the block’s patron saint.

Credit problems, a power outage, a winning lottery ticket, the question of where and with whom one belongs are the dramas that unfold and link this community together through magnificent songs and extraordinary dance.

Co-choreographers Kurt Stamm and Jay Gamboa create huge, thrilling ensemble numbers in a style that fuses hip-hop, latin, breakdance, and lyrical ballet. Wonderful partner dances and stunning virtuoso performances, particularly by ensemble members Travis Staton-Marrero and Carina Avila, abound. As gorgeous and funny and touching as the story is, it’s worth seeing this show for the spectacular dancing alone.

Of course, the dancing would be nothing without the vibrant music and killer orchestra, led by Music Director Tom Vendafreddo. And the setting, so central to the story, is made vivid and real with urban grit by Jeremy Barnett, with excellent lighting design from Jennifer Kules that seems to literally change the temperature in the room; and the characters, colorful and bright, come alive with delightful costumes, often sexy in an urban chic way, by Darlene Veenstra.

As if all that weren’t enough, right now is an important cultural moment to take in, connect with, and celebrate the humanity and innumerable contributions of immigrants in this country. Bravo to Mason Street Warehouse for creating such a gorgeous opportunity to do so.

In addition to “raise up,” alabanza also means applause, and this production inspires all the applause we have to give.

In the Heights
Mason Street Warehouse
June 21-July 14

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