Dallas Theater Center does justice to legacy of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights
While In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning musical, hasn’t been overshadowed completely by the overwhelming success of his follow-up project, Hamilton, it has faded into the background a bit.
But thanks to a new production directed by James Vasquez at Dallas Theater Center (through October 20) and the upcoming 2020 movie adaptation, In the Heights is set to put itself back in the public consciousness.
The musical, featuring music and lyrics by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, is set in and around one corner of New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. The lead character is Usnavi (Xavier Cano), who owns a bodega, employs his lazy cousin Sonny (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez), and harbors a big crush on Vanessa (Marina Pires), who works in the hair salon across the street.
All the members of the neighborhood interact on a daily basis, including Abuela Claudia (Nancy Ticotin), who helped raise Usnavi; Daniela (Talia Thiesfield) and Carla (Lorens Portalatin), who run the salon; Kevin and Camila Rosario (David Lugo and Crissy Guerrero), who own their own car/limo company; and Benny (Devin L. Roberts), Usnavi’s best friend who works for the Rosarios.
When the Rosarios’ daughter Nina (Tiffany Solano DeSena) comes back from college unexpectedly, her return throws a wrench into the plans of multiple other characters. Add in an already-planned move for one of the businesses, a local lottery winner, and a blackout, and big changes are on the horizon for this one particular neighborhood.
If you love Hamilton but are unfamiliar with In the Heights, the phrasing style of the songs, especially the raps, is unmistakable. Miranda originally played Usnavi, and you can feel his presence in every one of the character’s songs. Cano is wonderful in the role, embodying innocence, compassion, and a certain wisdom that the role needs.
The production hinges on the performances of its four main characters — Usnavi, Vanessa, Benny, and Nina — and none of the actors disappoint. Only DeSena, who is a dead ringer for Sarah Jessica Parker, may be familiar to local theater aficionados, as she is a member of DTC’s Brierley Resident Acting Company. Both she and Pires have powerhouse voices, and the chemistry the four actors share makes their individual and combined storylines shine.
While the songs are not consistently memorable, the production does contain some showstoppers. They include the titular opening song that sets the tone in a great way; “96,000,” in which much of the cast dreams of winning the lottery; “Paciencia y Fe,” a real showcase for Claudia, and in turn Ticotin; and “Carnaval de Barrio,” in which the neighborhood tries to make the best of the blackout.
Dallas Theater Center regularly wows with how it is able to adapt the Wyly Theatre to any type of production. Scenic designer Dahlia Al-Habieli does a fantastic job at re-creating a version of the original Broadway set, with its multiple storefronts and multi-story buildings, but the decision to put one of the storefronts on the far-right side of the stage winds up undercutting her design.
The right side of the audience faces the proscenium, giving a great view of the majority of the action. But Rosario’s, in which a good amount of the musical takes place, is directly to the right of that section, forcing anyone there to get a neckache just to watch the show. Pro tip: If you’re planning on going, make sure you sit on the left side or center section.
In the Heights is a story about the connections people forge in their own neighborhood, one that’s highly relatable, even if you’ve never lived in New York City. Dallas Theater Center’s production, while not perfect, does justice to the musical’s legacy and shows off the talents of some great actors.